"Let's play St Germain rummy!" the announcer shouts at the start of a political television ad now playing in Rhode Island.
The ad, attacking Rep. Fernand J. St Germain (D-R.I.) for his wheeling and dealing in real estate, features giant "rummy" cards that depict the pancake houses and condos owned by the House Banking Committee chairman.
But the clever commercial almost did not make it onto the air. Consultants to St Germain's Republican challenger, John A. Holmes, had the option of running an ad stressing Holmes' positive qualities instead. They decided last week to go with the hard-hitting rummy spot only because an opinion poll had showed Holmes trailing the incumbent by more than seven percentage points.
Their choice illustrates one of several notable trends in political TV land this election year: As in past years, many of the political ads tumbling across the tube feature highly negative attacks on the opposition. But now, more than in past campaigns, the selection and shape of political advertising is being influenced by an array of polling results, census data and other computer-analyzed information.
As a result, political strategists have increasing ability to tailor specific messages to narrow but vital slices of the electorate, time their ads to take advantage of shifts in voter opinion and identify issues and attitudes that may offer opportunities to gain ground.
Political operatives have always sought to do such things, but the combination of increasingly precise data and the greater speed and flexibility of today's television production equipment now make it possible to try things that once were beyond reach.
Drastic Action Indicated
In the case of St Germain's opponent, for example, when polling data showed Holmes still substantially behind the incumbent, his strategists decided the situation called for drastic action and ran the negative "rummy" ads. If polls had showed the gap to be narrow, they would have chosen instead to run ads emphasizing Holmes' positive points--hoping to encourage a positive trend and avoid the risks of backlash that are always inherent in negative ads.
The improved technology has also begat another trend: aggressive and quick counterpunching.
"The old rule of thumb was you don't respond to your opponent's charges because that lends credibility to an underfinanced, less-well-known candidate," says Mark Johnson of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. However, he adds, many who took the high road learned with dismay that negative ads can be powerful vote-getters.
"Now the rule is that a charge left unanswered is in some way a charge accepted," Johnson says.
Becomes Key Weapon
As a result, the quick "turnaround" ad has become a key weapon in the media consultant's arsenal. Recently, there was a classic demonstration of the new counterpunch strategy in the Louisiana Senate race.
Rep. W. Henson Moore (R-La.), who is battling Rep. John B. Breaux (D-La.) for the open Senate seat, ran a TV spot in which people on the street were asked what the number 1,083 stood for. Their whimsical guesses--"the number of times I quit smoking," and the like--were followed by an announcer intoning the correct answer: "the number of votes Congressman John Breaux missed in Congress."
Within 36 hours, Breaux was on the air with a look-alike ad, providing more humorous speculation about 1,083--"the temperature out here right now"--and then a very different answer: "the number of jobs lost in Louisiana every 10 working days because of Republican policy that Henson Moore promises to continue."
Similarly, in the Alabama Senate race, Republican incumbent Jeremiah Denton fired off a swift advertising response to the charge by his Democratic challenger, Rep. Richard C. Shelby, that he had repeatedly "voted against Social Security."
Shelby's ad called on voters to go to their public libraries and look up specific votes in the Congressional Record. Denton's video rejoinder showed two elderly women scoffing at the charge, with one finally declaring: "I know better. I'm Jeremiah Denton's mother."
Some of the harshest attacks, and slickest ads, have appeared in the nation's most expensive campaign, the California Senate race pitting Democratic incumbent Alan Cranston against the Republican challenger, Rep. Ed Zschau.
Cranston took the offensive early, bombarding the airwaves with a series of accusations that Zschau flip-flops on issues; one of the spots even mocked the jet-plane sound of the "signature" on Zschau's commercials. After switching ad agencies, Zschau fought back with ads accusing Cranston of being soft on terrorism and drugs.
Respond With Humor
Not all of the negative barrages this year are being answered in kind. Tagged by Republicans as liberal big spenders, several Democratic candidates are responding with humor. One such ad stars the 19-year-old son of Rep. Les AuCoin (D-Ore.).
It shows son Kelly washing a car and talking about how cheap the old man is. "When my dad pulls into a gas station for free air, he asks for an extra five pounds," Kelly says, adding that the congressman also takes his own popcorn to ballgames and chews "discount" gum.
For sheer hilarity, though, possibly no commercial this year can top the one produced by Washington consultant Joseph M. Rothstein for Glen Olds, Democratic challenger to Sen. Frank H. Murkowski (R-Alaska). Even Murkowski got a kick out of it, an aide said.
Arctic Research in L.A.
Amid scenes of palm trees, swimming pools and bikinis, the ad gleefully reveals that one of Murkowski's proudest achievements--the U.S. Arctic Research Commission--has its headquarters not in Alaska but in sun-splashed Los Angeles, where its chairman, USC President James Zumberge, resides.
The ad's punch line is delivered by a frolicsome man in sunglasses dropping ice cubes into a glass: "Who says we don't know anything about ice?"
In contrast with 1982, when Democrats were bashing Republicans over proposed Social Security cuts, and 1984, when Republicans were scorching Democrats over proposed tax hikes, the TV spots this year lack a national theme. Almost invariably they are focusing on local issues and the character or effectiveness of the candidate.
Defending this year's crop of ads, some advertising consultants contend that their products are providing better service to voters by concentrating more on issues. "I believe we've gone from image-based media to information-based media," says consultant Robert Squier, who is churning out ads for a quartet of Democrats seeking Senate seats. "We listen to what they say (in ads), they listen to what we say and we debate this out on TV."
But whether they are selling an argument or an image, consultants want to make sure their ads are seen by the right viewers--that is, those who will decide the election. Thus, increasingly, consultants are using computers to determine the best time to go on the air to reach specific audiences.
For example, Sen. Paula Hawkins (R-Fla.) has computers that, by matching broadcast ratings with census data, can break down the audience for every program on every television and radio station in Florida into 50 categories according to age, sex, race, income, occupation and education.
Recently, Hawkins wanted to run a Social Security ad aimed at elderly voters. The computer told her that 80% of the over-55 set in greater Miami watch three TV news shows at 6 p.m. She bought simultaneous air time on all three stations, creating a "roadblock" ad that could not be missed, even by viewers switching channels.
Use 'Tracking' Polls
Consultants also are using "tracking" polls to tell them whether their opponent's ads are so effective that a strategy of "negative" counter-advertising is in order--or their candidate is doing so well that it is time to go "positive."
GOP consultant Ed Blakely, who put together the anti-St Germain spot, says that "I'm sitting here with two sets of scripts, positive and negative. If the numbers are good, we go positive. If they're bad, negative . . . Because of tracking, media is being turned around closer and closer to election day."
In the early stages of a campaign, candidates serve up what are known in the trade as "feel-good" commercials--tributes to character and accomplishments so stirring that voters will feel good about them.
Reporters Probe Ads
As the Nov. 4 elections approach, the blizzard of electronic brickbats will thicken and possibly leave many voters confused. However, several consultants have noted one sign: More and more news reporters are looking into the truthfulness of the ads being aired.
For example, the Florida Times Union in Jacksonville, digging into a commercial by Hawkins, discovered it falsely contends that she personally met with China's top leader, Deng Xiaoping, and persuaded him to halt exports of the dangerous drug methaqualone.
Hawkins' aides acknowledged the error--she never met with Deng to discuss drug exports--but they refused to change the ad, insisting that its basic message--that she helped end a critical drug problem--was correct.