With less money to spend than they had four years ago, Gov. Martin O’Malley and former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. are aiming hard-hitting ads at each other’s records in office.
“This is a highly unusual campaign that pits two incumbents against each other — one with a record that everyone knows, the other with a record that reaches farther back into the past,” said Don Kettl, dean of the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, College Park.
“Both candidates have buckets of paint [and are] madly trying to paint the other’s record before efforts from each camp to define itself can work.”
“This is a grudge match,” said Matthew Crenson, professor emeritus of political science at Johns Hopkins University. “Unlike most non-incumbents, former Gov. Ehrlich has an encumbrance he has to overcome, and O’Malley hasn’t hesitated to attack that at all.”
Ehrlich has been on the offensive in his most recent TV spots, challenging O’Malley’s record on electricity rate hikes and the handling of an internal report that struck a more cautious tone on job creation than the Democrat was sounding in public.
O’Malley questioned Ehrlich’s credibility with a television ad that debuted just before the Sept. 14 primary about the fees Ehrlich raised while in office, and with radio ads depicting the Republican as a lobbyist with a soft spot for special interests.
John Patterson, creative director of MGH Inc., said the ads from both camps are “predictable” political fodder.
“It’s no big surprise that Bob Ehrlich is saying ‘Things are bad, come back to me.’ And that O’Malley is saying ‘Look at how successful I’ve been. We have to keep moving forward,’” Patterson said.
But with O’Malley holding a 3-to-1 cash advantage over Ehrlich in the most recent campaign spending reports, Patterson said Ehrlich’s advertising needs to get more creative.
“When we have a client that has limited funding, we almost always suggest they take more creative chances with their message,” Patterson said. “You can make up for a lack of money with an abundance of ideas.”
With Ehrlich trailing in recent polls and already facing an uphill fight as a GOP candidate running in a heavily Democratic state, veteran Baltimore ad executive Bob Leffler said the Republican will have to continue running negative spots.
“He’s got to be more strident, more of an attack dog,” Leffler said. “His stuff has to be really, really … it’s got to be dismembering.”
Accentuating the negative
In a battle between two well-known candidates who have held the same office, many experts believe that using repetitive negative ads makes sense.
“There’s a target standing out there in both cases,” Crenson said, referring to the records of each candidate. “That almost guarantees it will be negative.”
Leffler, president of The Leffler Agency, said ad firms and consultants return to negative campaign ads simply because “it works.”
“People still believe, they still take it at face value, no matter how often you have candidate watch, or truth squads” fact-checking the ads, Leffler said.
The negative ads serve dual roles, shaving support from the opposition and energizing the candidate’s own base. And, they tend to be the most memorable, Kettl said.
“We may not like them much, but as voters we do tend to pay more attention to them,” he said.
Many advertising and political veterans agreed that O’Malley’s most effective ad so far is the attack on Ehrlich’s raising various fees as governor. The Republican had been blasting O’Malley for supporting a major tax increase in 2007.
The O’Malley ad shows people chiding Ehrlich for differentiating between fees and taxes.
“There’s a big difference between fees and taxes,” Ehrlich says in a clip repeated throughout the ad.
“If it comes out of my pocket, it’s a tax,” a woman says near the end of the ad.
“I do think that there are a lot of people who are not fully engaged in the election,” said Richard Vatz, a rhetoric and communications professor at Towson University. “I think when people see that, they think ‘Whoa, there’s really not that much difference here.’”
O’Malley’s first forays on to the airwaves — radio ads that began running May 7 — were largely negative, attacking Ehrlich’s record on tax and fee increases and his handling of the budget.
A later radio ad linked Ehrlich’s work with law firm Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice to the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. After protests from Ehrlich’s camp and heavy media coverage of the claims, O’Malley admitted the ad was a “tactical mistake,” but the audio clips remain on the campaigns website.
In recent ads, Ehrlich has criticized O’Malley for failing to keep his promise to stop a 72 percent rate hike for Baltimore Gas & Electric Co. customers and for what the Republicans contend was a conspiracy within the Democratic administration to cover up a lackluster economic report.
“Martin O’Malley,” the narrator says in the jobs report ad, “first he makes stuff up, then he covers stuff up.”
Patterson, of MGH, pointed to that 30-second spot as the best Ehrlich’s camp has put together.
“Well, that sounds like Bob Ehrlich,” he said. “That was good writing. It resonates with people.”
A battle for turnout
With both candidates lagging behind their fundraising totals of four years ago, they have been slower to spend on advertising.
Ehrlich entered 2006 with a large financial advantage over O’Malley and poured $2 million into advertising by Aug. 29, while O’Malley had spent $1.4 million.
This year, the roles are reversed.
Through Aug. 29, the closeout of the most recent reporting period, O’Malley’s campaign had shelled out $1.1 million for “media,” the campaign finance reporting category that includes a variety of advertising and outreach expenses. Ehrlich had spent a little more than $100,000, but he steadily released television ads through September.
As they have with their previous gubernatorial campaigns, Ehrlich and O’Malley are using ad agencies outside of Maryland. By Aug. 29, O’Malley had spent more than $1 million with Media Strategies & Research, of Fairfax, Va., veterans of his 2006 run. Ehrlich has returned to Washington-based The Stevens & Schriefer Group, spending $15,000 there.
“Everything goes down there,” Leffler said. “That’s where the specialists are.”
Both camps are loath to talk strategy, but their placement of ads is telling.
O’Malley took to television on July 9 in the Baltimore market, where most of his anti-Ehrlich ads and spots touting his business bona fides are focused. In September, the Democrat released a radio ad featuring President Barack Obama targeted largely at black voters in areas like Prince George’s County and Baltimore City where O’Malley needs a healthy turnout.
Around the same time, his campaign began running ads touting his record on public and higher education in the Washington market, targeting vote-rich Prince George’s and Montgomery counties.
Ehrlich first appeared on the Baltimore airwaves on Sept. 3, and his first two ads were largely positive, bright and upbeat. They touted his “Roadmap to 2020” plan and his desire to “turn the state around.”
The Republican, who has not run radio ads, debuted his first TV ad in the Washington market Wednesday, seeking to make up ground in the state’s two most populous jurisdictions. Montgomery County, which has no Republican representation in Annapolis and is a solid Democratic stronghold, is nonetheless home to the second-largest number of GOP voters in the state and critical to Ehrlich if he is to improve on his performance in 2006.
“This is a battle for turnout,” Kettl said. “Many moderates, heavily motivated by the Obama campaign in 2008, could simply stay home. Voters are angry and alienated, and they might not vote at all.
“So the campaign is in part about winning the middle, and in part about each campaign’s efforts to ensure the right voters turn out.”
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