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
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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.”

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