Z on TV Critic David Zurawik writes about the business and culture of TV

Zurawik: Hogan had the best media campaign — until he didn't

Far and away the best media campaign for Tuesday’s primary was that of Gov. Larry Hogan, the candidate who didn’t even need to run one.

Until Sunday, I would have given it an A-plus.

But then came a news of an ongoing computer problem at the Motor Vehicle Administration that could affect tens of thousands of voters and a statement from Hogan’s spokeswoman, Amelia Chasse, describing the gaffe as a “clerical error” and dismissing the larger concerns of one Democratic leader as a “conspiracy theory,” according to a Sun report.

And just like that, all the strategy, skill and investment in creating the ideal image for the governor’s re-election campaign took a major hit.

Incumbency is usually thought of in political campaigns as a huge advantage. And, indeed, it usually is. But it can also be a liability in that the words and acts of an officeholder and his or her surrogates can become part the campaign in an election season — and cause big problems for the incumbent.

We don’t know where the audit Hogan has since promised of the MVA’s failure will ultimately lead, but his spokewoman’s attempt to dismiss legitimate concerns at a time of much skepticism about the voting process in general goes against almost everything Hogan has presented himself as being in TV ads emphasizing his bipartisan approach to helping all citizens.

A mistake by a state agency that could force as many as 80,000 voters to fill out provisional ballots — and the administration’s seemingly cavalier initial response to it — is at direct odds with the competence and caring image Hogan’s campaign ads have so skillfully been sowing of him as governor.

I praised Hogan’s first ad to high heaven, particularly for its strong, clear narrative and its deft handling of his treatment for non-Hodgkin lymphoma. It was brilliant.

Hogan has another ad running now that stresses what is characterized as his bipartisan approach to solving problems in Maryland. It’s filled with visuals of him reaching across the aisle to Democratic leaders in Annapolis.

When I saw it, I thought about how perfect it seemed at this moment of extreme political and cultural polarization. Again, brilliant.

After the first ad aired, I reached out to Russ Schriefer, the strategist identified by Hogan’s campaign as its creator, to ask why they chose to buy TV time on the eve of an uncontested primary. Why not save their $9 million campaign bundle for the general election?

Schriefer, a partner in the Annapolis firm of Strategic Partners & Media, said there were two reasons: First, they didn’t want to let Democrats dominate the discussion about what makes for good governance, and second, TV time is cheaper by federal mandate in advance of an election.

Again, smart stuff.

But all Schriefer’s political skill and campaign money spent don’t seem like they amount to much on this election day compared to the failure by the state to make voting as easy and accessible as it should be to perhaps as many as 80,000 voters because the team at the MVA didn’t do its job in processing change of address and party affiliation information.

And Chasse’s statement late Monday that the admistration is “obviously incredibly disappointed that this happened” doesn’t seem to take much responsibility or appreciate the magnitude of messing with the process of voting.

And that’s something her boss, the governor, won’t be able to fix now with a TV ad.

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

twitter.com/davidzurawik

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