Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Republican Ken Cuccinelli II have now both spent years running for governor of Virginia. Yet their long and bitter campaign can be boiled down to 90 seconds. Two television commercials, taken together, explain why Cuccinelli, who led by double digits in a Post poll published this spring, now trails by 4 percentage points in the RealClear Politics polling average.
Cuccinelli’s 60-second ad details his impressive success in getting Thomas Haynesworth, who was wrongfully convicted of rape 27 years ago, freed from prison. Even a novice political consultant would know that this powerful, true story should have been heavily advertised before the McAuliffe campaign used its cash advantage to define Cuccinelli in negative terms. In the ad, Haynesworth personally vouches for Cuccinelli, calling him “a hell of a guy,” while the chronically stiff Cuccinelli is shown choking back tears at the triumph of justice.
In political advertising, this is as good as it gets, a “get out of jail free card” for a Republican vulnerable to being depicted as an uncaring ideologue. What, then, possessed Team Cuccinelli to keep this story on the shelf until September, months after McAuliffe’s ad barrage had taken a heavy toll on their candidate?
It’s true that the campaign spent hugely on other positive ads, including one featuring an endorsement by Teiro Cuccinelli, the candidate’s wife. With all due respect, that ad was never going to be a game-changer. Indeed, if targeting the female vote was the goal, telling Haynesworth’s riveting story from the perspective of the women in his life would have been a better approach. Bottom line: A textbook example of political malpractice.
A commercial that exposed Cuccinelli’s baffling refusal to return gifts from the donor at the center of Gov. Robert F. McDonnell’s ethical troubles was a no-brainer. Yet the McAuliffe campaign made a huge technical mistake with its 30-second spot.
The facts of the episode are well known. McDonnell is under federal investigation for accepting gifts from Jonnie R. Williams Sr., founder of Star Scientific, a Virginia company that makes nutritional supplements. After refusing for months to return these gifts, McDonnell finally relented.
The operative standard for a governor’s behavior is what is right in the court of public opinion, but this self-evident political truth escaped Cuccinelli’s campaign even after the McDonnell’s reversal. Cuccinelli said his own gifts from Williams — plane rides, dinners and use of a vacation home — were “different” because they were not cash or merchandise but were considered “in-kind” under Virginia law.
Thus, all the McAuliffe campaign needed was a straightforward ad showing Cuccinelli’s inexplicable mule-headedness. Instead, it decided to “slice and dice” clips from TV newscasts to make these easy-to-make points.
TV news departments seethe when used in such partisan ways. Had the Cuccinelli team been more creative, it might have quickly hit back in a way that rallied the news operations to their side, deflating the issue. But it didn’t, saving the McAuliffe campaign from an unforced error. By allowing the Democratic candidate to use “neutral” TV news people to seemingly “call out” the Republican as being unethical, the Cuccinelli campaign made the second-biggest mistake this year. And even this botched ad got a backhanded compliment from Cuccinelli: The Republican reversed course and donated the value of the gifts to charity . Bottom line: The McAuliffe campaign knew the TV stations weren’t happy but wisely took the heat while pouring enormous resources behind this image-crushing commercial.
These 90 seconds are emblematic of how an increasingly negative campaign has reached near-parity in the polls. Early on, the Cuccinelli campaign had the means at hand to significantly alter the campaign’s trajectory. Had the GOP candidate’s strategists not spent months imitating the crew of the sinking Titanic, hundreds of thousands of likely voters would see him in a far more favorable light than they do today. The McAuliffe team, meanwhile, has made the most of its opportunities.
In the modern two-party era, only Doug Wilder in 1985 and Tim Kaine in 2005 entered September as underdogs but triumphed in November. Can it happen again in 2013? Yes. Cuccinelli’s deficit in the polls is mostly premised on predictions of lower-than-normal GOP turnout, not fatal damage among swing voters. If he can develop a closing theme capable of rallying the GOP faithful while persuading skeptical independents, he could still win.
Norman Leahy is an editor of the conservative Web site BearingDrift.com and producer of the political radio show “The Score.” Paul Goldman is a former chairman of the Democratic Party of Virginia.