The Heartland Whisperer

Political ad-maker Mark Putnam has a knack for making Democrats look tough. Is that what they’ll need to win in the long run?
(Ash Adams for The Washington Post)
By

Of all the concerns that might arise while filming a political ad on a glacier in Alaska’s Chugach Mountains, the worry that it’s not rugged enough wouldn’t be high on the list. Accessible only by helicopter, it’s the kind of place where simply standing upright requires a certain amount of core-muscle engagement. Then there’s the temperature, which, on this day in mid-February, hovered between 4 and 9 degrees. But two hours into directing a shoot for U.S. Senate candidate Al Gross, that’s where Mark Putnam’s mind has gone. As Putnam frames Gross with his index fingers and thumbs in that way artistes do, he does a head-to-toe survey of the candidate, double-checking for indicators of lagging swagger. His ski goggles — cool. His parka, a graphic blue-and-black pattern, make him look trim. After a few beats, Putnam gives an “all-good” signal to Gross, who’s far out of earshot, before retreating behind his camera tripod anchored by a mound of icy snow.

Putnam is a political ad-maker for candidates like Gross, an orthopedic surgeon who has never held office and is running as a left-leaning independent in deep-red Alaska. But Gross has one important leg up on his competition, Republican incumbent and Donald Trump acolyte Dan Sullivan: He is a native Alaskan, while Sullivan’s from Ohio. Alaska is a state where that matters. So Putnam is spending these months filming Gross, 58, engaged in all manner of red-blooded Alaska activities, like motor-boating down windy rivers and hunting grizzly bears.

Today’s shoot is the most ambitious yet. The idea is for Gross to ski from a vertiginous icy crag at the top of the glacier down to a bluff, make a jaunty side stop, look straight into the camera and, in his old-timey radio-announcer baritone, say, “I can beat Dan Sullivan, but I need your help to do it.” He’s supposed to do this in a single take.

Morale among the four-person crew is waning. Part of it is the frustration of witnessing so many near-misses. On the first go-round, Gross nailed the skiing but was too winded — we’re 7,000 feet above sea level — to deliver his lines. Another time, one of his boots slipped out of its binding three-quarters of the way down. But mainly, it’s just that there’s only so long one can last in single-degree conditions without chairs, bathrooms or — most painful to Gross’s campaign manager — a single bar of cell service.

No one doubts Putnam’s vision, though. He’s been making ads for Democrats for over three decades. (It’s a profession where you generally pick a side.) Even though his bona fides include co-producing a prime-time campaign infomercial for Barack Obama in 2008, Putnam’s best known for a 2017 ad for Amy McGrath, a then-unknown ex-Marine who was running for Congress in Kentucky. The two-minute, online-only spot, titled “Told Me,” featured the candidate in a leather bomber jacket on an airstrip with a fighter jet in the distance. In many ways, “Told Me” was similar to the ads that had become Putnam’s specialty: sometimes clever, frequently bombastic, always memorable twists on the get-to-know-the-candidate cliche. They had helped to elect 11 governors, 10 senators and dozens of House members, and earned Putnam a reputation in Beltway circles as the go-to guy for candidates running tough races in red states.

What had changed was his audience, which was newly radicalized post-Trump. The aftershock of electing a reality TV star to the Oval Office ignited a fire. McGrath was among a record number of women running for office in 2018, and her lack of experience had become a bragging right. (“Told Me” is a reference to a form letter a teenage McGrath received from her senator, informing her that women couldn’t be fighter pilots; in a poetic twist, the senator was Mitch McConnell.) Many Democrats felt like they’d played too nice. Suddenly, seeing a candidate display McGrath’s bravado was satisfying in a way it hadn’t been before. Within 48 hours, “Told Me” racked up more than a million views, with Mother Jones magazine declaring it “the kind of campaign ad that keeps Paul Ryan up at night.” By the end of the month, Democrats from across the country had donated an incredible $1 million. (The fact that McGrath would eventually lose her race would be forgotten in the buzz about her electability.)

When the 2020 campaign cycle began, political ad spending was already projected to hit a record $6 billion. Democrats had been waiting for four years for this moment, which they saw as a chance to redo the disaster that was 2016 by enacting blue waves across state legislatures, flipping the Senate and, most crucial, changing the occupant of the White House. For many, the key to that plan was making inroads in red areas with strong, moderate Democrats. Putnam’s services had never been more appealing.

Then, just a few weeks after the Alaska shoot, the pandemic took hold. Candidates found themselves unable to safely conduct fundraisers or rallies, and ads became one of the few ways they could reach voters. By May, new projections estimated that political ad spending would exceed that original record-breaking figure to the tune of $6.7 billion. Now, it was no longer just that Putnam was in the position to sway some of the most consequential races across the country; it was also that his role within those consequential races would have much greater weight.

Mark Putnam plays back a shot during the filming of Al Gross's campaign video in Alaska. Gross is running for the U.S. Senate. (Ash Adams)

A few weeks before the Alaska shoot, I met Putnam at the D.C. office of Putnam Partners, the political ad firm he co-founded nearly 10 years ago. It was only January, but he was already in the process of securing a roster of candidates involved in some of the cycle’s most high-profile races: McGrath, who was leveraging her star power with an even more ambitious run for Senate; Valerie Plame, the CIA officer who became a liberal folk hero after her cover was blown by the George W. Bush administration, running for Congress in New Mexico; Wendy Davis, the Lean In-era legislator known for her abortion-rights filibuster on the floor of the Texas Capitol, running for Congress; and Unite the Country, one of the super PACs behind Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden (with whom Putnam worked during his first run for president in 1988).

Putnam may have a knack for making candidates look like take-charge badasses, but in person he’s the opposite, favoring turtlenecks and round wire-rimmed glasses for an overall effect that skews more suburban dad than Steve Jobs. Raised in Anchorage by a librarian and a high school principal in an intellectual but largely apolitical household, Putnam, 56, has been obsessed with political ads since he was 10, when he saw a TV spot for a local politician that involved the candidate handing out balloons to kids. It was so bad that, from then on, “I started watching political ads in a way that I don’t think your normal 10-year-old watches a political ad,” he told me.

In anticipation of my arrival, Putnam had scribbled down a list of what he calls “nuggets” — the things he’s asked candidates to do over the years. The list included things like “dress up like a bucking bronco rider,” “run through walls,” “snow machine in negative-20 on Arctic water,” “get repeatedly punched in the face in a boxing ring.” It’s not that danger is a prerequisite for a “nugget,” but it certainly seems to be a popular feature. Back in Alaska, at the helicopter charter office after we returned from the glacier in one piece, I asked his longtime shoot producer where it ranked on the scale of most dangerous Putnam ads, and he clocked it at a mere 7 out of 10. (Ten, he said, was the time they filmed an ad in a coal mine, for Virginia state Sen. Phillip Puckett.)

“I’ll watch an ad and go, ‘That’s a Putnam ad.’ And most of the time, I’m right,” says former U.S. senator Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, who has worked with Putnam since 2000, when she ran for governor. The unapologetic effort involved in each “nugget” is a through line in Putnam’s work and serves as a kind of a meta-message: See how hard I worked on this? I’ll work that hard for you, too. When John Hickenlooper ran for governor of Colorado in 2010, Putnam featured him showering while wearing a suit and tie to make a point about how negative advertising makes him feel dirty. The result was a zany spot with an intentional low-budget feel, reminiscent of the Crazy Eddie cable commercials of the ’80s.

Putnam has worked in liberal states, says Heitkamp, “but I think where he really shines is trying to send a message that it’s okay to be a Democrat in the states like Alaska and North Dakota and Kentucky.” And certainly, it’s Putnam’s work in red states that has gotten the most attention. His ad featuring 2016 U.S. Senate candidate Jason Kander of Missouri assembling an AR-15 assault rifle while blindfolded racked up more than 900,000 views in a week. “Doors,” produced two years ago for MJ Hegar, a then-unknown Air Force veteran running for Congress in Texas, is the firm’s second most recognizable spot after “Told Me.” Though it wasn’t made by Putnam himself, it shares his trademark flourishes. In it, Hegar is talking about literal doors — like the one on the helicopter she was riding in when she was shot in Afghanistan — in addition to metaphorical doors, like the ones that were slammed in her face when she lobbied members of Congress about legislation involving gender equality in the military. It clocked more than 2 million views in a week.

Putnam began working with red-state candidates as a matter of practicality. After attending Brown University (it was there that he realized he was a Democrat) and working at a variety of political ad firms, he and a partner hung out their own shingle, Murphy Putnam Media, in 1997. “When you’re building a firm, sometimes, you may not be able to get a governor’s race in New York, but you can get a governor’s race in Tennessee, or you can get a governor’s race in Oklahoma,” he says. Putnam’s upbringing in fiercely independent Alaska, where partisan affiliations are often more a marriage of convenience than a passionately tribal alliance, gave him an edge with those clients. “I grew up in an environment of being very aware of these tensions with national parties, the problems that they had with what was then called liberalism, what is now called being a progressive,” he says. “I just don’t hate Republicans, and I think that that’s helpful.”

That insight is on display in the ad for Al Gross. With an assist from scenic drone shots and a rhythmic bass guitar instrumental layered in during post-production, “Glacier” is 100 seconds of pure braggadocio. (Putnam’s ads can often feel like a protracted classic-rock music video; the soundtrack to “Doors” is a very good knockoff of the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil.”) Toward the end, pre-recorded audio of Gross mischievously ribbing his opponent plays. Dan Sullivan is “the most beatable Republican incumbent you probably never heard of. I bet you don’t even know what he looks like.” When I spoke to Heitkamp, she’d just seen the ad. “It’s just that independent, rugged kind of individual. He’s out there, one man against the elements, going down a ski slope. What could be more Alaskan?”

After its release in mid-February, “Glacier” got a respectable amount of exposure, eventually topping out at around 230,000 views on Twitter. Then, in late July, the Never Trump Republican activist group the Lincoln Project endorsed Gross. Overnight, the candidate’s Twitter following ballooned from less than 10,000 to 63,000. Even more helpful than the endorsement, though, was the Lincoln Project’s tweet of another Putnam-made ad for Gross. “Avalanche” featured the same outdoorsy bravado of “Glacier” but dialed up even further. It was filmed on a commercial fishing boat, with a script that is basically a brag sheet of various maverick-y details in Gross’s biography: “Piloted through an ocean gale ... killed a grizzly bear in self-defense,” the voice-over says, with dramatic flair. It got 500,000 views in a single weekend, and in a matter of weeks, the Gross-Sullivan race became one of the most competitive in the cycle. (As of press time, however, polls showed Sullivan leading Gross.)

Gross’s campaign trajectory is becoming a familiar one. During the 2018 cycle, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez began her improbable path to unseating one of the most powerful Democrats in the party with a spot in which she declared, “Women like me aren’t supposed to run for office.” It racked up 300,000 clicks the day it was released. This past August, when Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts was in a tight primary with Rep. Joe Kennedy, he pulled ahead in the polls with a wide-ranging three-minute spot that Mashable described as a “trailer for a Scorsese film.” (Markey’s ad even featured a Putnam-esque soundtrack, a guitar riff similar to Jimi Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower.”)

But even though viral campaign ads are becoming more common, they’re still mostly a phenomenon on the Democratic side. This isn’t altogether surprising, since Democrats tend to be younger and more online. Indeed, almost every viral hit of Putnam’s began with a tweet from a blue-check member of Resistance Twitter: With McGrath’s ad, it was comedian Chelsea Handler; with an ad for Kander, it was “Star Trek” actor George Takei.

Putnam discusses logistics with a guide for their next shot during production of Gross's campaign video. (Ash Adams)

Bowdoin College professor of government Michael Franz, co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project, a database for campaign advertising, suggests this is more of an effect than a cause. Democrats’ current agenda happens to lend itself more easily to viral content. “Democrats have that angle that they get to sell: Here’s what we need to do to fight back. Here are the things we should try to accomplish. Republicans’ current main agendas, smaller government, lower taxes, law and order,” he says, “are harder to sell in an aspirational way. They’re easier to sell in a You should be afraid of X, Y or Z.” (Putnam, for his part, says he’s found it almost impossible to predict what will be a hit, though he offers that ads centered on a “powerful antagonist,” like McConnell, seem to go viral more often.)

This spring, Putnam released a series of ads for McGrath’s Senate campaign that moved away from the bombastic, click-bait fare he’d made for her congressional run. In them, Putnam framed McGrath as the adult in the room amid a national crisis exacerbated by partisan infighting. Citing her time in the Marines, she says in one: “We didn’t care about politics. We just wanted to serve our country.” But by June, as outrage over the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor were rocking the nation — Taylor’s killing by police officers resonated in her native Kentucky in particular — McGrath’s “Can’t we all just get along?” message wasn’t gaining traction with her base. Suddenly, she found herself in the unlikely position of being neck-and-neck with Charles Booker, a charismatic 36-year-old freshman member of the Kentucky House of Representatives active in the Black Lives Matter movement. A week before the June primary, with polls showing the candidates in a dead heat, McGrath released an ad that mentioned George Floyd for the first time but still attempted a pivot to the middle. It condemned what happened to Floyd in Minneapolis (though, confusingly, made no mention of Taylor), avoided the phrase “police brutality” and used the president’s threat of military intervention in response to protests of racial injustice as an opportunity to remind voters that she served in the military. The muddled result gave her opponent an opening for a bruising criticism: “This ad is exploiting our pain,” Booker tweeted.

When I asked Putnam about these ads, he was wary of speaking for the campaign. But he was willing to speak in more general terms; he justifies moderate messaging as part of the tightrope involved in running in a primary in a red state. “There’s a lot of left progressives who look down on Democrats who are more centrist, but frankly they represent the places that they’re trying to win,” he says, adding that a lot of the gains in 2018 were with moderate Democrats who won seats held by Republicans. To Putnam’s point, McGrath ultimately won the primary against Booker, albeit narrowly; the race was called only after absentee ballots were counted. I asked Putnam about comments like Booker’s. “Ninety-eight percent of a population voting in a primary isn’t living on Twitter,” he said.

Ironically, that’s a version of the criticism that’s been leveled at Putnam’s work. For all the national acclaim she received, McGrath didn’t win the congressional seat she was gunning for in 2018; neither did MJ Hegar. Both were long-shot candidates, of course, but the excitement behind them, some might argue, was more a reflection of the echo chamber of Twitter — and national media and wealthy donors — than the perceptions of actual voters.

Then again, in this hyperpartisan environment, the idea of persuading any actual voter in a couple of minutes might seem old-fashioned, anyway. Back on the glacier, in February, the sun was setting deeper into the sky as it became apparent that Al Gross would have time for one, maybe two more takes at best. Putnam gave Gross what might be one of his last stage directions. “Don’t worry if I can’t hear you say the lines,” he says. “But make sure that when you say them, you own them.” It’s good advice. If Gross can’t convince the four-person crew, he won’t convince Alaska.

Putnam in his D.C. office, editing a campaign video for Gross. (Michael A. McCoy)

Amanda FitzSimons is a writer in New York.

Design by Clare Ramirez. Photo editing by Dudley M. Brooks.

We noticed you’re blocking ads!

Keep supporting great journalism by turning off your ad blocker. Or purchase a subscription for unlimited access to real news you can count on.
Unblock ads
Questions about why you are seeing this? Contact us