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
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Scott Bland
Feb. 3, 2014, midnight

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.”