In a state that prides itself on exotic politics, Raymond Strother, who makes television commercials for a living, claims, "I'm a media star."
"There's been more attention given the media creators during the election this year than the candidates we work for," he says.
There's a good reason. This has become the year of the TV governor in Lousiana.
During the last eight months, six major candidates for governor, and their image-makers, have waged the longest, most intensive television campaign this state -- perhaps any state -- has seen.
By the time the primary polls close Saturday, they likely will have spent an estimated $20 million, or about $10 per registered voter -- more than has ever been spent in an election in a single state.
Big money is no stranger to Louisiana politics. It's tolerated with the same laissez-faire as political graft, vote-buying and profiteering.
"Campaigns have always been extremely expensive in Louisiana," says Dr. Edward F. Renwick a Loyola University political scientist and pollster. "Politics are entertainment here. It's a sport -- bigger than football, even.
"The governor's race is a Super Bowl of politics. The governor of this state is almost a constitutional dictator,' he adds. "The amount of money in contracts and patronage he controls is incredible. That attracts money, and politicians will spend whatever's available."
But candidates, none of whom is a multimillionaire, are understandably skittish about money. Worried that the price tag may be "turning off" voters, Democratic Lt. Gov. Jimmy Fitzmorris, one of the frontrunners, proposed a $1 million ceiling on campaign spending.
His opponents all agree in principle. But they all know that only two will survive Saturday's primary, so they've continued to spend.
(For the first time this year, Louisiana is using an unusual "open primary" where all candidates, Republicans and Democrats, run together. The two top finishers, regardless of their party, will face each other in the general election Dec. 8)
The candidates have spent hundreds of thousands on polls, consultants, phone banks, travel, and beer and hot dog parties. But mostly they've spent money on television -- a total of $5.3 million by Oct. 12, according to campaign finance reports. And the escalating cost of TV have been the major factor in escalating campaign costs.
The race has been largely of imagery. "No one ever let as issue interfere with an election in Louisiana," says one campaign aide. "The message is the whole ball game. The message is the message," says Ron Faucheaux, who created commercials for U.S. Rep. David Treen, the only Republican in the race and the apparent leader.
The television campaign started in March and has been going full speed ever since.
Commercials have been made decrying "media events." Commercials have been made about other commercials. Polls have been taken asking which commericials are best.
It's mainly pap -- a factor state Sen. Edgar (Sonny) Mouton capitalized on. Across the picture of a large, white faced bull flashed the slogans of other candidates ("I'm nobody's man but yours," etc.). After the last slogan came a voice: "Are you tired of the same old political bull? Vote for Edgar Mouton."
How so many candidates are able to afford all this is a surprise to almost everyone here, even though high spending has become common in American politics. Texas Gov. William Clements, for example, spent $4.4 million of his own money to get elected last year. Jake Butcher, a Tennessee Democrat, spent an estimated $4 million to win the 1978 gubernatorial primary, only to loss the general election.
The Louisiana campaign isn't a "rich man's election," yet six candidates were able to spend more than $1 million by Oct. 12. Lambert spent $2.9 million; Fitzmorris, with a strong base in New Orleans, spent $2.8 million; Treen spent nearly $2.2 million; Mouton spent $2.25 million; state House Speaker E.L. (Bubba) Henry spent $1.3 million and Secretary of State Paul Hardy spent $1.9 million.
Because the reporting laws are pocked with loopholes and the reports didn't cover the last two weeks of the campaign, most observers here believe the primary total could exceed $20 million.
Where does the money come from?Louisiana, a state that ranks 43rd in the nation in terms of median personal income, "is filled with oil money," says media adviser Strother, who has worked in 80 state campaigns "It's new money and it's quick money. And it is the new quick money that contributed to campaigns, not old money."
Because of the money and the fact that Louisiana is one of only three states (the others are Mississippi and Kentucky) with a statewide race this year, this has attracted many of the giants of the poltical consulting industry, men whose reputations often overshadow those of the candidates they're working for.
For example, Jimmy Carter's pollster, Patrick Caddell, has been here. So has Carter filmmaker Robert Squires, who started making commericials for Lambert late in the campaign. Matt Reese, whose reputation goes back to his success in the 1960 John F. Kennedy campaign, set up a $400,000 phone bank and voter identification program for Lambert. Henry has pollster Peter Hart, award-winning filmmaker Charles Guggenheim and Washington-based consultant Mark Shields working for him. New York media whiz Robert Garth Worked with Mouton long enough to be paid $639,000.
They are in a high-stakes game. Consultants who make commercials normally collect a 15 percent commission on every TV ad they place in addition to retainer and production fees. "The governor's race is a big score," says Strother, the Baton Rouge consultant working for the Hardy campaign. "I'll make about $250,000 off of this."
Ironically, big-name reputations haven't paid off handsomely in the public opinion polls. A poll published by the New Orleans Times-Picayune this week showed Republican Treen with 22 percent of the vote, Fitzmorris with 12 percent, Lambert with 11 percent, Hardy with 9 percent, Henry with 6 and Mouton with 5 percent. Eleven percent refused to answer and 23 percent said they were undecided.
Treen and Fitxmorris, the two frontrunners, have used strictly locally produced commericials. Hardly, who has run the most strident ads with frequent attacks on "the labor bosses," has relied primarily on Strother after having David Sawyer, a New York filmmaker produce some early TV spots.
"The big mistake [the big-game early outsiders] all made was to put a formula that they have used elsewhere on a set of circumstances where the formula couldn't work," says Foucheaux, who is a state representative as well as a media adviser. "The key is there are no miracle workers in this business. Political campaigns are human events that have a life of their own. You can't pigeonhole them."