Are Elizabeth Warren’s ads not working?

September 12, 2012

Democrat Elizabeth Warren has hit her share of bumps against Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) during the past few months. As she tries to make a course correction, the fate of her campaign could hinge on her ability to re-calibrate a TV ad campaign which has left some Democrats aching for a shift in tone and message.

“People need to see the Elizabeth Warren that they see out on the campaign trail in her ads,” said Massachusetts Democratic strategist Mary Anne Marsh, who is not working for Warren, though others employed at the firm she belongs to are.

For Warren, the best move might be to take a page out of Brown’s playbook.


(Stephan Savoia /AP)

So far, Warren’s commercials have largely featured her, front and center. In recent spots, she has tended to pitch herself as a fighter for the middle class who is willing to stand up to Washington policies favoring wealthy corporations over the interests of ordinary Americans. Warren's latest ad, released Wednesday afternoon, relies mainly on others to make the case for her. It carries this message for the middle class: "Your fight is Elizabeth Warren's fight."

One could also argue that inherent in Warren’s message has been a kind of them-against-us posture, which to some, could be interpreted as confrontational. "Small business owners bust their tails every day. But they can’t afford armies of lobbyists in Washington. No one says it, but the system is rigged against them,” Warren declared a recent ad.

Her fiery message has won her plaudits from liberals inside and outside the state, and her record fundraising is evidence of the widespread enthusiasm for her candidacy. But in Massachusetts, victory in November will require not just shoring up base support but also winning over the conservative Democrats and independents -- particularly men -- who may not be as moved by sharp rhetoric.

Democrats are watching Warren's ads carefully. The Boston Globe reported Wednesday that Warren’s campaign is facing pressure from within her party to shift the direction of her campaign ads to help soften her image and focus attention on Brown.

The Republican, meanwhile, has taken a different approach from Warren when it comes to TV advertising. He’s making a more personal pitch. His TV ad campaign has lately included spots belonging to a series his campaign has dubbed, “Scott Brown From The Road.” The ads feature Brown driving in his signature pickup truck that became a symbol in his 2010 campaign. He has also run commercials pitching himself as bipartisan, and spots in which his wife praises his efforts as a father and husband.

So far, neither candidate has taken a clear negative swipe against the other in a TV ad. But both candidates have remained loyal to a pact curbing the influence of outside groups. So long as the agreement is active, it will be incumbent on Brown and Warren to assume the role of attack dog against one another (at some point).

But for Warren, positive campaign tactics could be as crucial as the (potential) negative ones. One way to for her to shift gears in her ads is to, like Brown, discuss her humble beginnings and personal story – something her supporters say she does well on the campaign trail.

In her Democratic National Convention address, Warren hinted at her ability to personalize her message. She began her address on a biographical note, saying she “grew up in a family on the ragged edge of the middle class. My daddy sold carpeting and ended up as a maintenance man. After he had a heart attack, my mom worked the phones at Sears so we could hang on to our house.”

Warren's very first ad, which presented her biography, was similar to the beginning of her convention address. Spots that personalize her pitch like that could also end up being beneficial to her in the fall.

The external circumstances affecting the election appear to favor Warren: It’s taking place in a blue state, during a presidential year -- and the latter is a factor that will provide the Democrat with top-of-the-ticket coattails.

But in a campaign where the incumbent has built a brand largely rooted in personality and biography, Warren's task is manifold. She must not only convince voters that Brown is out of step politically with the Bay State. She must also effectively argue that his personal pitch – something that goes a long way in politics -- isn’t reason enough to reelect him. One way to do that is to convince voters that she, too, can connect with them on a one-to-one level.

Updated at 3:43 p.m.

Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.
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