When Hog Castration Salvages a Senate Campaign

With one ad, Iowa state Sen. Joni Ernst was transformed from obscure legislator to possible Senate majority-maker.

Joni Ernst was struggling to get traction in the Iowa Senate primary.  Then she ran an ad about hog castration.
National Journal
Josh Kraushaar
May 11, 2014, 7:01 a.m.

Not so long ago, Joni Ernst was an ob­scure Iowa state le­gis­lat­or, strug­gling to get trac­tion in a crowded GOP Sen­ate primary. Her lead­ing Re­pub­lic­an rival had mil­lions of his own money to spend. An­oth­er op­pon­ent was a former U.S at­tor­ney with high-pro­file con­ser­vat­ive con­nec­tions. A third chal­lenger, a con­ser­vat­ive talk-show host, was gen­er­at­ing en­thu­si­asm with the grass­roots.

It all meant Ernst couldn’t raise cash and was barely re­gis­ter­ing in early polling.

But with one vir­al tele­vi­sion spot tout­ing her ex­per­i­ence cas­trat­ing pigs, her for­tunes changed. The ad, where Ernst ar­gues her back­ground will help her “cut pork in Wash­ing­ton,” re­ceived at­ten­tion far bey­ond in­side-the-Belt­way polit­ic­al circles. It was fea­tured on The To­night Show and The Col­bert Re­port and it landed more than 531,000 You­Tube hits. Now, sev­er­al weeks later, Ernst holds crit­ic­al mo­mentum in the run-up to the June 3 primary, win­ning en­dorse­ments from Mitt Rom­ney to Sarah Pal­in. Her once-paltry fun­drais­ing has boomed since the ad cam­paign, and she now leads in the latest primary polls.

It’s a sign of how im­port­ant tele­vi­sion ads that can break through the clut­ter are in today’s me­dia-sat­ur­ated en­vir­on­ment, es­pe­cially for Sen­ate chal­lengers who aren’t es­tab­lished fig­ures. Des­pite the new­found em­phas­is placed on mi­crotar­get­ing to rally the base, the real­ity in Sen­ate races is that per­sua­sion mat­ters a lot. One catchy ad can make all the dif­fer­ence in launch­ing a suc­cess­ful cam­paign. And the Iowa Sen­ate race is one of the most im­port­ant races in the coun­try, a swing-state battle­ground that could de­term­ine wheth­er Re­pub­lic­ans win uni­fied con­trol of Con­gress.

“The open­ing line of that spot was a line that she used dur­ing a de­bate, and it brought the house down. We knew that there was some amount of risk, but we also knew that when she had said it be­fore, that it worked,” said Todd Har­ris, whose firm Something Else Strategies pro­duced the 30-second ad. “When you’re at 5 per­cent in the polls, and you’re run­ning against a guy who has set a re­cord for per­son­al spend­ing on a cam­paign in Iowa, you’re go­ing to have to take some risks.”

Des­pite the mil­lions of ads that have aired in polit­ic­al cam­paigns since the ad­vent of tele­vi­sion, only a small frac­tion of them are truly mem­or­able — and even few­er are de­cis­ive in chan­ging the tra­ject­ory of a race. New York City May­or Bill de Bla­sio prob­ably wouldn’t be in Gracie Man­sion if it wasn’t for his son’s ap­pear­ance in a mem­or­able primary spot that put the city’s pub­lic ad­voc­ate on the map. The ad fea­tured 15-year-old Dante, with his over­sized Afro, speak­ing warmly about de Bla­sio be­fore re­veal­ing he was the can­did­ate’s son.

In 1990, then-Car­leton Col­lege pro­fess­or Paul Well­stone ran a series of quirky, hu­mor­ous TV ads of him­self ra­cing across the state (lit­er­ally) to in­tro­duce him­self to Min­nesota voters. An­oth­er showed him search­ing in vain for his op­pon­ent, then GOP Sen. Rudy Boschwitz, hop­ing to chal­lenge him to de­bates. The ads, pro­duced by me­dia strategist Bill Hill­s­man, res­on­ated; he was the only chal­lenger to oust a sit­ting sen­at­or that year. Nearly a dec­ade later, an­oth­er Hill­s­man ad trans­formed pro­fes­sion­al wrest­ler Jesse “The Body” Ven­tura in­to Jesse “The Mind” Ven­tura in the fi­nal stretch of his in­de­pend­ent gubernat­ori­al cam­paign — likely mak­ing the dif­fer­ence in a close, three-way race. Shot in black and white, the ad fea­tured a shirt­less Ven­tura pos­ing as Rod­in’s “The Thinker” as a nar­rat­or re­cites his cam­paign plat­form.

“It’s harder to do these days. In­cum­bents will nev­er do that once they’re in the clutches of Wash­ing­ton,” said Hill­s­man, the head of North Woods Ad­vert­ising. “But if you have four people who aren’t well-known, it makes sense for you to throw long — it drives at­ten­tion to that par­tic­u­lar per­son. And if you’re the un­der­dog, you have to take risks.”

Hill­s­man, whose firm is based in Min­nesota, ar­gued that Wash­ing­ton’s con­ser­vat­ive, risk-averse cul­ture makes it hard to get cre­at­ive spots ap­proved. Even Well­stone, he said, had to be tricked in­to re­cord­ing the com­mer­cial, think­ing the concept was a “joke” when he was in­formed of the ad­vert­ising strategy. When he began film­ing, all Well­stone was told was that he should say his lines really fast. Only later did they show him the story­boards, and he re­luct­antly signed off.

Hill­s­man also re­called Ven­tura’s wife and moth­er-in-law al­most ve­toed the Jesse “The Mind” ad­vert­ise­ment from air­ing be­cause they thought it looked like “he was on the toi­let.”

In truth, there’s not a huge dif­fer­ence between pro­du­cing a quirky dud and a catchy hit — and the risks of try­ing are enorm­ous. Fred Dav­is, a Re­pub­lic­an me­dia strategist known for push­ing the en­vel­ope with his cam­paign spots, was pil­lor­ied after he cre­ated a 2010 Web video for Sen­ate can­did­ate Carly Fior­ina in Cali­for­nia that cast her op­pon­ents as “de­mon sheep.” A sub­sequent ad for Sen­ate can­did­ate Christine O’Don­nell in Delaware, in which the em­battled tea-party fa­vor­ite pro­claimed she is “not a witch,” drew out­sized at­ten­tion for all the wrong reas­ons. But that same year, Dav­is pro­duced Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder’s ad cam­paign de­fin­ing the ven­ture cap­it­al­ist as “One Tough Nerd,” suc­cess­fully con­trast­ing his pro­file against more polit­ic­ally ex­per­i­enced op­pon­ents.

“Some­times what people think is cre­ativ­ity is just weird­ness. There’s a dif­fer­ence between weird­ness with a stra­tegic pur­pose be­hind it and weird­ness for just be­ing weird,” said Hill­s­man. “Some people just have that abil­ity to crash through the cam­era”“and really feel like they’re con­nect­ing with them.”

Ernst fits that de­scrip­tion, with her farm­ing back­ground and mil­it­ary ser­vice. Her cam­paign fol­lowed up the de­but with a new spot por­tray­ing a leath­er jack­et-clad Ernst fir­ing a gun at the shoot­ing range while de­scrib­ing her op­pos­i­tion to Obama­care. “She’s not your typ­ic­al can­did­ate. Con­ser­vat­ive Joni Ernst. Mom. Farm girl. And a lieu­ten­ant col­on­el who car­ries more than just lip­stick in her purse,” the nar­rat­or says.

“Even though most of the polit­ic­al world wasn’t all that fo­cused on Iowa, every­one around Joni al­ways knew that she had the po­ten­tial to catch fire once voters star­ted get­ting to know her. She really did grow up on a farm, she really did grow up cas­trat­ing hogs, she really is a lieu­ten­ant col­on­el, she really does ride a Har­ley,” Har­ris said. “It was an em­bar­rass­ment of riches.”

What We're Following See More »
BACKING OUT ON BERNIE
Trump Won’t Debate Sanders After All
2 days ago
THE LATEST

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.”

AKNOWLEDGING THE INEVITABLE
UAW: Time to Unite Behind Hillary
4 days ago
THE DETAILS

"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.

Source:
AP KEEPING COUNT
Trump Clinches Enough Delegates for the Nomination
4 days ago
THE LATEST

"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."

Source:
TRUMP FLOATED IDEA ON JIMMY KIMMEL’S SHOW
Trump/Sanders Debate Before California Primary?
4 days ago
THE LATEST
CAMPAIGNS INJECTED NEW AD MONEY
California: It’s Not Over Yet
4 days ago
THE LATEST

"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%.

Source:
×