Take a drive in rural parts of Texas and California, turn on the radio, and hear this:
“If you own a firearm, listen to what Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis says about you.” Then the same voice continues: “I don’t believe in people owning guns--only the police and military.”
That ad produced by the National Rifle Assn. won’t be heard nationally. Nor were they officially sanctioned by the George Bush campaign.
But they have hurt Dukakis in Texas, provoked legal threats and persuaded the Dukakis campaign to air a Texas TV ad implying that Bush supports gun control.
Welcome to the rough road of regional campaign advertising--where ads are aimed only at a specific region of the country, or via cable and radio at only a narrow group of voters. Often they are ads produced by supposedly independent political action committees.
In a sense, this is the back-country road of presidential advertising, and this year it is a road traveled more heavily than ever before. Cable TV and more sophisticated demographic research, for instance, have allowed campaigns this year to carefully target groups such as the elderly, hunters, or young voters by knowing the channels and shows they watch.
And because many of these ads are not, at least theoretically, produced by the campaigns, they often have a sharper edge, and thus have dramatically increased the nasty tone of this race.
Dukakis’ campaign, for instance, has charged that Vice President Bush’s ads have an underlying tone of racism because they show Willie Horton, the black man who committed rape while on state-sponsored furlough from a Massachusetts prison.
Actually, the Bush campaign’s officially produced TV advertising never mentions Horton, let alone pictures him. It is independent ads, aired in carefully selected regions of the country or only on cable, that do.
“In a way, these (ads) are Bush’s thousand points of light,” mused University of Virginia political scientist Larry J. Sabato, echoing Bush’s now-famous phrase for the power of independent sources in America helping causes they believe in voluntarily.
And not only do these independently produced ads “reinforce the message” in Bush’s own advertising, “they also broadcast the Bush message beyond the dollar amount spent by the campaign,” said Kathleen H. Jamieson, a political scientist at the University of Texas who has written extensively on political advertising.
It is Bush’s cause, indeed, that has been helped most by independent and regional ads.
--A group called Americans for Bush spent at least $540,000 principally to run ads on Cable News Network. “Dukakis not only opposed the death penalty, he allowed first-degree murderers to have weekend passes from prison,” one says. Although the ad doesn’t mention it, so does the federal prison furlough program. The second ad shows a picture of Horton.
--The Committee for the Presidency says it has raised at least $300,000 to run ads in California and elsewhere featuring Donna Cuomo, whose brother Horton killed, and Cliff Barnes, whose girlfriend was raped and who himself was tortured by Horton. “Mike Dukakis and Willie Horton changed our lives forever,” Barnes says in two of the ads, powerfully emotional appeals that make it sound as if Dukakis personally freed Horton for that fateful weekend.
--The National Security Political Action Committee has spent $100,000 to air an ad 2,400 times on cable stations in Florida and Ohio the final week of the campaign that claims “a Dukakis group calls for a $75-billion cut in defense.” That, however, is a reference to the Boston-based Jobs with Peace Campaign, on whose board Dukakis serves but with which he differs on certain issues.
--The National Rifle Assn. has had so much success with its gun control radio ads in Texas, which are also running in 12 other states including California, that this week it added 10 more. “The NRA is making a difference in Texas that rivals the Bush campaign’s own advertising, particularly in rural parts of the state,” said political scientist Jamieson.
The ads charge that Dukakis is opposed to private ownership of firearms, based on a statement NRA supporters said Dukakis made in a private meeting they attended. The Dukakis campaign threatened to sue for libel those stations airing the ads. The lobby group this week in turn filed suit seeking an injunction against the campaign, claiming that in Texas alone 140 radio stations had been bullied into discontinuing the ads.
--Both camps also are running Spanish-language ad campaigns airing on television and radio in states such as Texas, California and New Mexico. Dukakis’ ads take advantage of his fluency in Spanish. Bush’s two ads, one in English, one in Spanish, feature his Latino daughter-in-law, Columba, offering a testimonial to the vice president’s cultural sensitivity, and they conclude with Bush, surrounded by Columba’s children, saying: “I’ll be answering to my grandchildren, not just to history.”
“In some ways . . . we are coming full circle,” said Harvard political scientist Gary Orren. “This is bringing us back around to a decentralized, targeted kind of advertising,” that described political discourse in the pre-television era.
Part of the reason for the rise of regional advertising is the growth and rise in ratings of cable and independent television stations. At the same time, network ad rates are getting higher, while network ratings are shrinking.
More sophisticated market research, meanwhile, allows campaigns to identify the audiences for each of these stations. Suddenly, campaigns know they can reach older voters with one message on the health cable TV network, younger voters on MTV, or conservative voters predisposed to anti-crime messages during the fishing or hunting show on ESPN.
“It has provided us with a more cost-efficient method of targeting and I think you will see it refine itself more in the years ahead,” said Sig Rogich, the man who wrote and photographed many of Bush’s ads under the supervision of media consultant Roger Ailes.
For instance, a high percentage of people who watch Cable News Network vote, Sabato explained, “so you aren’t paying to reach the 50% of the audience who are non-voters. Those non-voters are watching ‘Laverne and Shirley’ reruns.”
These targeted ads produced by supposedly independent groups tend to be tougher than those from the official campaign.
“Since an independent group is not directly tied to the campaign by definition, they can get away with more and the campaign can make a case they are not involved,” Sabato said. “Now people may not believe the case, but they can make it. It gives them a cover.”
Shared Polling Group
In the past, the reality has been that the relationship between these groups has been less than arms-length, despite campaign finance laws. In 1980, for instance, independent groups and the campaign shared the same polling organization, Jamieson said. The Bush campaign and the independent groups this year insist they know of no contact between them.
Some say independent ads can be risky if they create a backlash by being unfair--something American Enterprise Institute political scholar Norman Ornstein believes is a risk this year: “I think some of the Willie Horton ads are pretty tasteless.”
Those are the ads, in fact, that Democratic vice presidential nominee Lloyd Bentsen criticized, saying they had an underlying element of racism. At a press conference on Tuesday, key Republicans contended in turn that the ads were not connected with the Bush campaign.
But they certainly echo the campaign rhetoric of Bush on the stump.
So did a sermon last weekend by religious broadcaster Jerry Falwell. On his “Old Time Gospel Hour” broadcast, Falwell gave an accounting of the records of Bush and Dukakis, complete with slick graphics, on issues relevant to his viewers.
And according to Sabato, the language was highly charged in favor of Bush.
In the era of cable, such broadcasts are not easy to discount. Falwell’s “Old Time Gospel Hour” now airs on 300 stations across the country, including Ted Turner’s WTBS, which alone reaches half the households in America.
Staff writer Laurie Duncan contributed to this story.