In 1986, when Jim Bunning was running his first race for United States Congress, his general consultant was Lee Atwater. The race was for an open seat in Kentucky against a popular Democratic state legislator, who had some baggage. Bunning was a former state senator and a retired professional baseball player with a Hall of Fame career.
On the pitcher’s mound, Bunning had been known for his rough and tumble demeanor. If a batter leaned in a bit too far over the plate, Bunning was not shy at brushing him back. When he retired, Bunning was baseball’s all-time leader for hitting batters. Bunning carried his competitive nature into politics. In this first race, he wanted to throw high-and-tight at his opponent’s head.
Lee Atwater had a very simple philosophy about going negative in a campaign. While attack ads were necessary to a campaign, Atwater knew that they had a detrimental effect on the candidate who was airing them. Atwater would not take any campaign negative until the candidate had earned enough positive name identification to survive the whipsaw polling effect.
Like a pitcher waiting for a sign from his catcher, Bunning waited for the signal from Atwater. And, when Bunning’s positive name identification reached a high enough number, Atwater gave the go-ahead. Bunning hit his opponent hard, won the race and never looked back.
Going negative in Ohio’s Senate race
Today, it seems, campaigns do not follow the Atwater school of negative campaigning. Negative spots are pushed on the air at the same time the campaign is trying to construct its own candidate’s public image. Often, a campaign will even lead off its efforts with a negative ad.
The case of Democrat Lee Fisher in Ohio’s race for United States Senate is a perfect example of this illogical political phenomenon. Fisher is Ohio’s lieutenant governor. Like most people who sit second-chair in state government, no one knows him. It’s likely that fewer Ohioans know Lee Fisher’s name than know the name of Ohio’s official state amphibian.
Fisher’s opponent is Rob Portman, a Republican with a political resume custom-made for a race in 2010. He served in Congress from southern Ohio (where his family and their business are well known and respected) and worked for a law firm in Cleveland.
Portman’s two cabinet-level positions under President George W. Bush play very well to various factions in Ohio’s GOP base. The old party faithful know that, because Portman was Bush’s Trade Representatives, he understands world economies. Tea Partiers should be giddy overt the fact that, as Bush’s Secretary of OMB, Portman submitted a budget to the Hill that contained a workable roadmap to a balanced budget which could have been attained in five years.
Polling numbers confirm Portman’s upbeat public image.
All political logic would indicate that the Fisher campaign would build name identification with Ohio voters before hitting at Portman. Nope. Fisher’s first ad of the general election campaign blames recent job losses in Ohio personally on Portman. The ad is poorly produced and being run in limited areas. The campaign has admitted that it does not have enough money to keep it on the air through Election Day.
When blaming Bush is a lie
Fisher’s attack on Portman is not surprising. Blaming Bush has been the only consistent message coming out of the Obama While House for nearly two years. Portman is squeaky clean and trying to link him to Bush via trade policy may be all Fisher has to offer for a negative spot.
But Fisher needs name identification and the only time his name is even mentioned in his jobs ad is when he formally “approves this message.” And Fisher shouldn’t have even approved it. According to Ohio newspapers reviewing it, the ad is misleading.
The reality is that jobs have been lost in Ohio. But according to labor statistics, those jobs haven’t gone overseas. Ohio’s job loss has been to surrounding states. Keeping jobs from leaking to other states was Lee Fisher’s number one responsibility when he was Ohio’s economic development director. Yet, Ohio suffered its greatest job losses during Fisher’s tenure as the state’s economic chief.
Now, instead of using what little funds the campaign had on hand to build Fisher’s name recognition, they are stuck with a television ad which is getting limited air play. Newspapers are calling it a lie. No wonder Fisher is burning through campaign staff at a record pace. If any more of Lee Fisher’s campaign staff “go missing,” someone will start placing their pictures on milk cartons.
The base Democratic voter in Ohio is left with the Election Day choice of: a) staying home, b) nervously voting for Fisher, or c) writing-in for a spotted salamander (Ohio’s official state amphibian).
Rick Robinson is the author of political thrillers which can be purchased on Amazon and at book stores everywhere. His latest novel, Manifest Destiny has won seven writing awards, including Best Fiction at the Paris Book Festival.