How Republicans Built a Better Obamacare Ad

Democrats are worried that personal tales of misfortune will be tough to defend against in the 2014 midterms.

Sen. Kay Hagan (D-NC) comes out from the weekly policy luncheon October 4, 2011 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.
National Journal
Scott Bland
See more stories about...
Scott Bland
Feb. 3, 2014, midnight

{{ BIZOBJ (video: 4702) }}

Wear­ing a blue blouse and clutch­ing a cof­fee mug, Chapel Hill busi­ness­wo­man Sheila Salt­er sits at the counter of a well-ap­poin­ted North Car­o­lina kit­chen in a re­cent TV ad. What she says is the stuff of Demo­crat­ic night­mares.

“I was shocked,” she says of her can­celled health in­sur­ance policy. She blames em­battled Demo­crat­ic Sen. Kay Hagan for her woes. Hagan “told us if you liked your in­sur­ance plan and your doc­tors, you could keep them,” Salt­er con­tin­ues.

Salt­er’s kit­chen-counter story, broad­cast in­to North Car­o­lina liv­ing rooms by the con­ser­vat­ive out­side group Amer­ic­ans for Prosper­ity, is part of the latest bar­rage of anti-Obama­care ads. It’s evid­ence that, after four years of look­ing, Re­pub­lic­ans think they’ve fi­nally found the per­fect way to hit Demo­crats for sup­port­ing the law. And Demo­crat­ic strategists worry that Re­pub­lic­ans can rep­lic­ate it across the coun­try.

“For the last two elec­tions voters have had to take our word for it that Obama­care would be a dis­aster,” said GOP con­sult­ant Brad Todd. “They don’t have to take our word for it any­more. They can listen to people like their neigh­bors tell their own stor­ies.”

Pess­im­ist­ic pre­dic­tions and sin­is­ter stat­ist­ics have been staples of at­tack ads since Pres­id­ent Obama signed the health care law in early 2010. But Re­pub­lic­ans haven’t had stor­ies like Salt­er’s to go with them.

Un­til now. And they come just in time for the 2014 elec­tions.

Re­pub­lic­ans should find someone like Salt­er in every 2014 con­gres­sion­al race and put her on TV, ac­cord­ing to one GOP ad-maker. “It would be crim­in­al stu­pid­ity not to find these folks and re­cruit them to this every­where,” said Re­pub­lic­an me­dia strategist Rick Wilson. He con­tin­ued: “I would think you’ll see Dav­id Jolly,” the GOP’s nom­in­ee for a spe­cial House elec­tion in a swing Flor­ida dis­trict, “roll something like this out soon.”

Many of those whose policies were can­celled will be able to get new health in­sur­ance cov­er­age. But between the per­son­al as­pect of the stor­ies and Demo­crats’ in­sist­ent prom­ises over the past few years that every­one would be able to keep their health care plans, the ad­vert­ise­ments have the po­ten­tial to strike a nerve in ways that Re­pub­lic­an cam­paigns have not be­fore.

The Re­pub­lic­an stand-by on Obama­care in 2010 and 2012 was to at­tack it, and Demo­crats who sup­port it, be­cause it “cuts Medi­care by $700 bil­lion.” (Demo­crats ap­plied a sim­il­ar at­tack to Re­pub­lic­ans and their budgets.) But per­son­al an­ec­dotes are much more power­ful polit­ic­al mes­saging tools than cita­tions of data. The Demo­crat­ic con­sult­ing firm Glob­al Strategy Group re­cently asked poll re­spond­ents to rate the be­lievab­il­ity of sev­er­al sets of state­ments, pit­ting one fea­tur­ing an­ec­dotes against one fea­tur­ing stat­ist­ics on the same sub­ject. More people chose the an­ec­dot­al state­ment in all three tests.

That might be be­cause the stor­ies are less am­bigu­ous. Obama­care has gen­er­ated nu­mer­ous re­ports about its im­pact, and both parties cherry-pick the most friendly stat­ist­ics for their pur­poses. Not­ably, the Hagan cam­paign’s fact-check of AFP’s re­cent ad couldn’t dis­prove any­thing that Salt­er said. Per­son­al­iz­ing Obama­care can back­fire — GOP Rep. Cathy Mc­Mor­ris Rodgers’s State of the Uni­on re­but­tal fea­tured a con­stitu­ent story that’s now get­ting picked apart by the me­dia — but the tech­nique has high po­ten­tial.

Just ask Demo­crats. A per­son­al­ized tech­nique was a huge part of their anti-Mitt Rom­ney play­book in 2012.

“It’s just like when Pri­or­it­ies USA used that steel­work­er” and oth­er per­son­al stor­ies in their ads, Wilson said.

That’s a ref­er­ence to the pro-Obama su­per PAC that aired a series of tele­vi­sion spots savaging Rom­ney’s re­cord dur­ing the last elec­tion. Many of them, in­clud­ing what might be the most mem­or­able TV ad of an elec­tion that had more than ever, fea­tured men and wo­men speak­ing to the cam­era about how Rom­ney’s firm, Bain Cap­it­al, took over their busi­nesses, shut them down, and laid off work­ers like them.

The Re­pub­lic­an ar­gu­ment that Rom­ney’s busi­ness ca­reer ul­ti­mately cre­ated more wealth and jobs for oth­ers didn’t stick nearly as well as Demo­crats’ mes­saging about the GOP nom­in­ee. It’s part of the reas­on exit poll re­spond­ents said that Obama was “more in touch with people like you” than Rom­ney and that Rom­ney’s policies were more likely to fa­vor the rich over the middle class.

Hav­ing watched those ads work in their fa­vor in 2012, the po­ten­tial on­slaught of per­son­al­ized GOP health care ads in 2014 has some Demo­crats wor­ried.

“That’s a really hard ar­gu­ment to try and beat back,” said one Demo­crat­ic strategist in­volved in con­gres­sion­al races. “Now we’re ar­guing with real people who have a power­ful voice. There’s no ques­tion that the real stor­ies of people who’ve lost health in­sur­ance are a prob­lem for us.”

What We're Following See More »
Trump Won’t Debate Sanders After All
17 hours ago

Trump, in a statement: “Based on the fact that the Democratic nominating process is totally rigged and Crooked Hillary Clinton and Deborah Wasserman Schultz will not allow Bernie Sanders to win, and now that I am the presumptive Republican nominee, it seems inappropriate that I would debate the second place finisher. ... I will wait to debate the first place finisher in the Democratic Party, probably Crooked Hillary Clinton, or whoever it may be.”

UAW: Time to Unite Behind Hillary
1 days ago

"It's about time for unity," said UAW President Dennis Williams. "We're endorsing Hillary Clinton. She's gotten 3 million more votes than Bernie, a million more votes than Donald Trump. She's our nominee." He called Sanders "a great friend of the UAW" while saying Trump "does not support the economic security of UAW families." Some 28 percent of UAW members indicated their support for Trump in an internal survey.

Trump Clinches Enough Delegates for the Nomination
1 days ago

"Donald Trump on Thursday reached the number of delegates needed to clinch the Republican nomination for president, completing an unlikely rise that has upended the political landscape and sets the stage for a bitter fall campaign. Trump was put over the top in the Associated Press delegate count by a small number of the party's unbound delegates who told the AP they would support him at the convention."

Trump/Sanders Debate Before California Primary?
2 days ago
California: It’s Not Over Yet
2 days ago

"Clinton and Bernie Sanders "are now devoting additional money to television advertising. A day after Sanders announced a new ad buy of less than $2 million in the state, Clinton announced her own television campaign. Ads featuring actor Morgan Freeman as well as labor leader and civil rights activist Dolores Huerta will air beginning on Fridayin Fresno, Sacramento, and Los Angeles media markets. Some ads will also target Latino voters and Asian American voters. The total value of the buy is about six figures according to the Clinton campaign." Meanwhile, a new poll shows Sanders within the margin of error, trailing Clinton 44%-46%.