Ben Jealous better have a great debate Monday at Maryland Public Television.
In three decades of writing about media and politics, I have seen few campaigns at the level of governor as weak as the one Jealous has been running since he won the Democratic primary in June.
That’s why the former CEO of the NAACP needs a super-strong performance in the one and only scheduled TV debate between him and incumbent Larry Hogan. And that seems like a lot to expect given that he did not perform especially well in the primary debates, particularly the first one on WBAL.
I am not saying Jealous can’t win. As of Tuesday, there will be six weeks left. Maybe he is right in his focus on getting voters to the polls. But I don’t know anyone who thinks you can win at this level without a strong media effort, and it is definitely well past the time for him to get his media act together.
Last week, his campaign at least had a presence on Baltimore TV with a mainly biographical ad paid for by the candidate’s campaign. Furthermore, “special interest” cash, also known as dark money, is expected to launch more TV ads for him in Baltimore starting this weekend, according to Federal Communications Commission filings and two sources involved in the buying and selling of political ads.
Such money from the Republican Governors Association was used over the summer in a TV blitz to characterize Jealous as “too risky” and “too extreme” for Maryland. Those ads are widely credited with being a major factor in dismal poll numbers for Jealous today.
The Goucher Poll released this week shows the Democrat trailing Hogan by 22 points, 54 percent to 32 percent. (A Gonzales Poll in August gave Hogan a lead of 16 points, 52 percent to 36 percent.)
“I think those TV ads definitely played a role in what you are seeing in the poll,” said Mileah Kromer, Goucher professor and director of the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center, which conducted the poll. “When one candidate dominates on TV the way Hogan has since the primary, it makes a difference.”
Worse, even moderate Democrats are “breaking for Hogan,” according to Kromer.
Interestingly, the Goucher survey ended Sunday, and Jealous’ first major ad buy of the general election arrived on TV Monday, so Kromer thinks it could give us a baseline for measuring the effect television advertising can have on poll numbers here. I wrote about that effect in the 2016 Baltimore mayor’s race as Catherine Pugh started a climb to first place in the polls following a major TV buy.
(Full disclosure: I teach at Goucher.)
I hate dark money. I hate the fact that money can be laundered through Super PACs like the Republican Governors Associations so that voters in places like Maryland don’t know where the money attacking a candidate is really coming from. I am far from being alone in seeing that as a grave threat to democracy.
But it is too easy for those who favor Jealous to blame all his media troubles on the RGA spending — particularly a confirmed $1.2 million on TV ads in the space of 30 days in July and August alone in Baltimore.
Much of Jealous’ media trouble is of his own making — and the product of a skilled and very aggressive Hogan media team.
Within hours of Jealous’ primary victory, Team Hogan had an attack on Facebook, which ended with the statement “BEN JEALOUS: TOO EXTREME TOO RISKY.”
According to the tagline on the ad, it was paid for by the Larry Hogan for Governor campaign, not the Republican Governors Association.
But the attack ad that appeared the next day was even more impressive in terms of its rapid-response turnaround and tight thematic focus by Hogan’s media team.
The core of this video was an interview Jealous did on MSNBC the morning after his victory. It showed him stumbling badly in free media with hosts Stephanie Ruhle and Ali Velshi. He repeatedly dodged their question about a possible fracture in the Democratic Party by mostly offering insulting-to-their-intelligence talking points.
Ruhle and Velshi went from all smiles at the start of the segment to exasperation at Jealous’ refusal to answer their questions about the future of the party. And they called him out on it in no uncertain terms — at which point, he seemed momentarily flustered. Not a good look.
Team Hogan didn’t miss a beat in turning all of that into a highly effective ad that ended again with the message “TOO EXTREME TOO RISKY.”
Again, that was not RGA money giving Hogan an edge. That was Jealous blowing free media, and Hogan’s campaign shaping it into an ad and making sure lots of people saw it on Facebook. It looked to me like Hogan’s campaign was using Facebook to test possible themes and images that might later be incorporated into television ads by itself or others. That’s smart use of new and old media in tandem.
The ad Jealous is running is a solid, professional one. It is filled with sunshine, smiles and Jealous reaching out to warmly shake hands and touch citizens on their arms in a show of friendliness.
It is the antidote to all those RGA and Hogan ads that were filled with dark imagery and poses of Jealous in which the candidate looks snarling and angry. The problem is that it is probably too little and too late to make a dent in the first impression ads created by Team Hogan and the RGA in June, July and August.
But even as Jealous’ TV ad campaign got off to a decent start, the candidate’s crew created another media gaffe this week: It vetoed without explanation a reporter from the Hagerstown Herald-Mail as a questioner in the upcoming TV debate.
And then, the campaign went radio silent much of the next day, not returning calls or speaking on the record about it.
Looking even more confused, it ultimately reversed itself by dropping the veto Tuesday night in the wake of blistering criticism from the MDDC Press Association and the threat of the Baltimore Sun dropping out of the debate over the precedent it might set of candidates determining which journalists can question them.
To quote the late Casey Stengel, manager of the infamous 1962 New York Mets, a team only slightly worse than the 2018 Orioles in wins and losses, “Can’t anybody here play this game?”
Let’s not forget Jealous responding in August to a question from a Washington Post reporter by using the F-word to ask her, “Are you (expletive) kidding me?”
I’m not a media consultant. I just get to play one occasionally in this column during election cycles.
So, here’s my advice to Jealous on the eve of this big TV debate: Think of Monday as the first day of the rest of your media campaign. And unlike what’s gone on since the end of June, try to bring some focus and fire to this one.
First, come out strong challenging Hogan on the attack ads his campaign paid for right after the primary — focus especially on the dark, shadowy imagery in which they are steeped.. Make it clear to viewers that Hogan paid for these — not the Republican Governors Association. The RGA just used their millions to pile on and bury Baltimore TV in the nasty imagery.
You have the moral high ground here — use it like a hammer. Hogan went negative in a million dollar ad campaign that some analysts believe had racial overtones. You have yet to air any attack ads. Make sure viewers understand that. Put together a catch phrase if you can which encapsulates that message and try to make it into a mantra by the end of the debate. This is Job One in trying to undo the damage from the summer.
The trick is challenging him without seeming too aggressive. That’s not easy. If you are too aggressive, you can be seen as the caricature of you that his ads sought to instill in viewers’ minds.
But you can undo a lot of the ugly stereotyping if you strike the right balance.
Smile as you do in your new ad, but not too much. Think of the firm, quiet, but pleasant demeanor of Barack Obama in his debates. (Not the first one with Mitt Romney where he looked like he didn’t want to be there and grew more irritated and cranky as the night wore on.) No matter what, do not let yourself lapse into any of the facial expressions that are shown in Hogan’s attack ads.
You have to wear a dark suit, but go with a little pop of brightness in your tie to further challenge the imagery of Hogan’s attack ads. That might sound minor, but TV is first and foremost a visual medium and cosmetics matter enormously. That’s why reporters, anchors and analysts put on makeup at cable news and network channels before they go on the air to talk about hurricanes, war and politics. Trust your makeup consultant. If you don’t have one, get one ASAP.
I won’t advise on policy. I will leave that to the politicos. But you absolutely need a clear, concise explanation of how you are going to pay for your most ambitious programs on education and health care. You have not yet delivered that in the language of television. Here is your chance to start that ball rolling, and you can then follow up with TV ads.
Whatever you do, don’t let yourself appear flustered as you did in the MSNBC interview. Hogan will try to press you for specifics on your plans to the point where it might get under your skin. You cannot let that happen. Along this line, don’t show any anger if he calls you a socialist. Parry it into another chance to show the audience how willing you believe Hogan is to attack and distort the truth — just like the guy you have been unsuccessfully trying to link him to for months, President Donald Trump.
That’s a lot to do in one debate. But if you don’t get some of it right, your campaign could be roadkill by November.
The debate will be taped at 11 a.m. Monday at Maryland Public Television. It will air at 7 p.m. Monday on MPT and WBAL-TV.