Tuesday’s election will tell us more than who will control the House of Representatives and who will govern Maryland the next four years from the State House down to Baltimore County.
It will also tell us something important about television and its role in political life.
Since the presidential election of 1960 with the seminal TV debate between Democrat John F. Kennedy and Republican Richard Nixon, the medium’s role in politics has continued to grow no matter what changes occurred in society and on the media landscape.
But we are well into the digital age, and analysts have now been predicting for almost two decades that the all-pervasive influence of TV on politics was coming to end.
Except every two and four years, the candidates keep spending record amounts on television ads while mostly only flirting with digital media when it comes to spending money.
Maryland is an excellent example. In fact, if Gov. Larry Hogan, who has a double-digit lead in the polls, still winds up winning as big over Democrat Ben Jealous as some analysts have predicted, Maryland is going to be Exhibit A for those campaign professionals who argue that new media’s influence (and utility for candidates) may be growing, but TV still rules and is the place to spend most of your campaign dollars. That’s how Hogan and his allies have approached this race, and they have done it with textbook precision. The Jealous campaign, whether because of poor strategy, disorganization, lack of funds (or all three), was left in the dust.
The consensus among media and advertising executives contacted for this article is that about $14 million to $15 million will ultimately be spent on Baltimore media by all candidates combined in this midterm election cycle.
That compares to about $12 million overall spending in 2014 when the marquee contest in the state was Hogan against Democrat Anthony Brown. In that race, Brown was the big spender on TV. This time, it’s Hogan or, to be precise, outside groups in support of Hogan.
One such group, the Republican Governors Association, alone spent $4 million on Hogan’s behalf, much of it in TV ads over the summer attacking Jealous as “too extreme” and “too risky.” The RGA bought $1.2 million worth of Baltimore TV ad time in July and the first week of August, and appears to have defined Jealous to many voters while the Democrat’s campaign seemed to be on vacation.
What happened to Jealous on TV in Maryland is brutal. Within hours of the former NAACP head’s win in the Democratic primary, Hogan’s campaign team had a video up on Facebook titled “Introducing Ben Jealous.” It ended with the words and “too extreme” and “too risky” in large white letters against a red background. The next morning, Hogan’s campaign had another video up on Facebook that hit the theme even harder. It was titled “Too Extreme?” It ended with the same two phrases.
The speed and execution of those Facebook videos by Team Hogan were impressive. You would think they would have sent a jolt of fight-or-flight adrenaline through the Jealous campaign, but there was no direct, immediate, media response at all.
And then came the onslaught of attacks ads in July and the first week of August paid for by the RGA. One of the ads titled “Extreme” showed how important those overnight videos after the primary were.
It looked to me like the Facebook videos done by Hogan’s campaign were a kind of test marketing to see what would work, and when the RGA thought they saw a way to define Jealous that would stick, they went full-bore, not on Facebook, but on Baltimore TV, and they used the classic tools of negative advertising, the ones voters claim they hate but which still seem to work.
Different viewers can interpret the same text differently depending on their personal histories. Gender, race, social class are just some of the factors at play in such determinations. But from that first Facebook video titled “Introducing Ben Jealous,” the red background under the words TOO EXTREME TOO RISKY screamed “radical” to me. And superimposed as the ads were over an image of Jealous aggressively pointing his finger at the camera, the montage begged an association of fear, danger and perhaps even menace with the Democratic candidate. The early work of the RGA and others has put the Hogan campaign in a position to close out the campaign with a barrage of positive ads that appear aimed at running up the score (for example, by appealing to African-American voters in Baltimore and Democrats in Montgomery County).
Purely in terms of using the media to run an effective campaign, you cannot help but applaud what Hogan and the RGA did. In terms of hitting quick and hard, it is in a league with the Obama campaign’s effective effort to define Mitt Romney as a heartless corporate hatchet man who liked to lay people off from the moment he won the GOP nomination in 2012.
It is almost in a league with Donald Trump’s use of old and new media.
We are living in a time of media transition between legacy and social media, and just as Trump found a hybrid of live TV talk on cable news channels paired with nonstop Twitter attacks, so did Team Hogan with the use of Facebook videos and TV ads.
This is a campaign that could and probably will be used to teach future candidates how to effectively use media.
That’s not entirely something to celebrate. Hogan’s media success rests in part on some very old and ugly tactics. I can’t overstate how troubled I was by the way the RGA ads framed Jealous visually in darkness and shadows and consistently showed him with facial expressions that would best be described a snarling, glaring, frustrated or angry.
There is a history of African-American men being depicted this way in media, and it’s disturbing that Hogan’s allies would go there. But at the same time, the Jealous campaign should have been ready and prepared to fight back — just as Hogan was four years ago when ads for the Brown campaign sought to paint him as an anti-gun, anti-woman fanatic. Jealous should have been out there instantly denouncing it for what he later characterized as racist and countering with a message of his own. But where in the world was the campaign of Ben Jealous during the summer?
There is one other thing voters should think about in connection with Hogan’s TV ad campaign, according to Susan Ogden, vice president of Get Money Out-Maryland, a citizens group focused on campaign finance reform and access to the ballot. She thinks it is dangerous to democracy when you have TV ads in Maryland funded by millions of out-of-state dollars that voters don’t know the source of.
Voters might know the RGA is a GOP-support organization, she said in an interview this week. But do they know the RGA is raising the money spent in support of candidates like Hogan from “wealthy special interests, billionaires, and corporate treasuries” outside Maryland and that it has a “long-range, right-wing agenda” involving the control of statehouses and governors?
If voters are aware, there’s little evidence that it’s bothering them enough to mar the positive image Hogan has worked so hard to create for himself or to diminish the negative one that his allies have created for his opponent.
Can anything upset Hogan’s media dominance this late in the campaign? It would take the intrusion of some extraordinary reality — a real-life event not constructed for the camera and meticulously edited to make the candidate appealing — and we got one this week with the widespread outrage at the University System of Maryland’s Board of Regents for their response to the death earlier this year of University of Maryland football player Jordan McNair.
The regents, most of whom were appointed by Hogan, voted to retain the football coach and athletic director, while essentially forcing the university president to announce his departure at the end of the academic year, the one person at the school who voiced any sense of moral responsibility for McNair’s death. The decision was announced by James Brady, chair of the regents and a former campaign chairman and ally of Hogan, and Jealous for once displayed urgency and deftness in laying the outrage at Hogan’s feet. He was locked into the moral moment. But before Jealous could take true advantage of it, Hogan was back in control with a statement calling on the regents to reconsider mere minutes before Loh announced that he had fired Durkin despite the board’s wishes.
The story may not be over yet. Jealous could justifiably seek to link Hogan to this debacle by accusing him of using the university system’s governing board as a place of patronage, a post-retirement home for allies like Brady, who showed no capacity for educational or moral leadership in this time of crisis. Does he have the wherewithal to do it? Is it already too late? And is Hogan poised with more ways to control this story and protect his own image? We’ll know soon enough. Voters go to the polls on Tuesday.