Donald Trump’s shocking 2016 victory challenged a lot of conventional truths about media and political campaigning.
Since he spent almost nothing on TV advertising, analysts started questioning the wisdom of spending millions on ads. Trump’s Twitter success further raised questions about the need for big TV spending.
We are in a time of massive media transition — no doubt about it. And that means media strategists have to reconsider every aspect of political campaigning.
But Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan’s impressive win over challenger Ben Jealous Tuesday offers some strong insights into the use of media that directly challenge what was starting to feel like post-2016 conventional wisdom.
TV still rules
Hogan’s campaign and the Republican Governors Association bet heavy on TV advertising during the summer, and it felt like the race was over before Labor Day when polls started showing the governor with as much as 20 percent lead.
During the primary, Hogan’s campaign saturated the airwaves with a superb ad titled “Maryland Strong” that defined Hogan in part by the way he dealt with a diagnosis of cancer in 2015. It was risky, but it humanized him in the way that transcended party boundaries and the polarizing politics of today. You can read my review of that and other ads in the race here.
That was a positive ad, and Team Hogan pounded the airwaves with it in June even though Hogan had no competition in the primary.
When the ad debuted, I asked Russ Schriefer, the strategist who created it, why the campaign team chose to buy TV time on the eve of an uncontested primary instead of saving their money for the general election.
Two reasons, he said, “one strategic, the other practical.”
The practical one was that air time was cheaper during the run-up to the primary because federal regulations force stations to sell air time to candidates at the lowest rates before primary and general elections.
But the biggest reason was that with a large field of Democratic candidates all over television talking about their records and plans for the state, Team Hogan wanted to make sure “the governor remains in that space … that he’s heard and is part of the conversation,” Schriefer said.
And just as that ad defined Hogan positively in the minds of some voters more than three months before the traditional Labor Day start of the general election, an ad from the Republican Governors Association defined Jealous negatively over the summer.
The RGA spent $1.5 million in July alone to run those ads on Baltimore TV, while Jealous, who was all but missing in action on the airwaves over the summer, never had a chance to recover.
But you also need digital media in sync with TV
In the same way that Trump blended tons of free cable TV time with his use of Twitter in 2016, so did Hogan’s team blend the TV ad time it bought with highly skilled use of Facebook.
That’s the greatest truth about where the successful media campaigns now live — in the space between old and new media. That’s where the culture itself lives as we transition from a TV culture to a digital one.
Hogan’s campaign was on Facebook the night of the primary with an ad titled “Introducing Ben Jealous” that used the catchphrase “Too Extreme” and “Too Risky.” It stuck, and was picked up by the RGA and multiplied exponentially with TV ads throughout the state.
It seemed as if Hogan’s campaign was using Facebook as an inexpensive way to test market its ideas for TV. But the social media team was also lightning quick in jumping on a mistake by Jealous or an issue and getting something online instantly.
The reason Trump didn’t need to spend money on TV ads was because of all the free airtime he got on cable TV as a result of his ability to hold an audience with non-stop, stream-of-consciousness, sometimes transgressive talk. That’s not an option for a state-level candidate like Hogan, but paid media can fill the gap.
It isn’t just money, it’s also how you spend it
Hogan outspent Jealous 3 to 1 overall in the campaign. That’s a fact.
But the full story here isn’t just about the amounts of money. Hogan’s team and the RGA spent their money far more wisely with those early TV ad buys while some analysts were wondering where in the world of media Ben Jealous was.
And while the Democratic party appears to have given Jealous next to nothing, he did get some serious media help from PACs. He received nearly $3 million in support from Maryland Together We Rise, according to F.C.C. filings and other documents. But most of the TV money apears to have spent in the last month of the campaign — long after first TV impressions had already hardened into convictions.
You can read more about what I had to say about this during the campaign here.
Attack ads still work
This week, I received another pitch to write about a study that reportedly found political attack ads don’t work. The supposed reason: They turn people off.
How was that conclusion reached? People told the researchers they don’t like attack ads and tune them out.
Work as a journalist or media researcher long enough and you will understand that people tell interviewers all kinds of lies.
Maybe the respondents really did believe that attack ads don’t work because they don’t like them.
But the ads certainly did their dirty work in the Maryland campaign — and in a lot of others where Democratic candidates found themselves trying to explain they were neither extremists nor socialists.
Maybe image matters more than ground game
As much as I believe you can’t win an election at the level of governor without first and foremost a strong media campaign, I gave Jealous the benefit of the doubt when he said registering voters and getting them to the polls were the priorities of his campaign.
It would be nice if such real world actions were more important than perceptions created by image makers when it comes to electing those who will govern.
But this election says it is still media that matters most. And if you don’t get that right, all your hard work and money spent on organizing a ground game will be in vain.
Hogan’s campaign had one of the best Republican image makers in the country in Schriefer, and he gave us a TV version of Hogan during the campaign that it was easy to like and even admire.