It was after midnight on November 3, 2004. Harry Reid was in the Rio Hotel, in Las Vegas, having just won election to his fourth term in the U.S. Senate. But he wasn’t celebrating. Democrats around the country were in trouble. Among those who would go down was Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle. That meant Reid was next in line to lead Senate Democrats. Six years later, in November 2010, Republicans would try to do to Reid what they did to Daschle. But on a night when things went the Republicans’ way almost everywhere else, in Nevada, they failed. Harry Reid won re-election when most observers said it couldn’t be done. We believe television advertising played a key role in helping Reid to victory and we focus on television ads in this article. But no discussion of the campaign would be complete without making mention of three other factors that also proved essential:
First is Senator Reid himself, who, in our admittedly biased view, was a tireless fighter for Nevada with an extraordinary record of accomplishment.
Second, Senator Reid’s foresight to bring an early Democratic caucus to Nevada in 2008 provided a massive “dry run” organizing effort among Democrats and resulted in a dramatic increase in Democratic voter registration.
Third was the extraordinary campaign operation Reid built. The team included the earned media and rapid response effort led by Jon Summers; a record-breaking fundraising operation directed by Jake Perry; a crack opposition research team headed by Matt Fuehrmeyer; a fully integrated direct mail program created by Mike Muir of Ambrosino, Muir & Hansen; a comprehensive online program designed by Well & Lighthouse; an unprecedented Nevada GOTV effort run by Preston Elliot; and spot-on research developed by Mark Mellman of the Mellman Group, which provided the foundation for television and most everything else.
The Nevada Political Landscape in 2010
Heading into the 2010 midterms, Harry Reid was considered the most vulnerable incumbent in the country. No state had been hit harder by the recession than Nevada. Unemployment was the highest in the nation, and foreclosure rates were skyrocketing. As a result, Nevadans were angry and exhausted. In focus groups and polling, voters expressed profound disenchantment with Washington. Conservatives were highly motivated, independents were behaving like conservatives, and progressives were dispirited.
In this kind of electoral environment, any Democratic incumbent would face significant challenges. For Senator Reid, they were only part of the story.
First, Nevada’s population had exploded since Reid’s last serious race. This meant that thousands of voters didn’t know him well. Second, the state’s largest paper—the Las Vegas Review-Journal—was determined to defeat Reid, and other news coverage too often focused on his role as majority leader, positioning him at the center of partisan debates rather than at the center of Nevadans’ everyday concerns.
These factors combined to drive Reid’s poll numbers into dangerous territory and encouraged an array of hostile groups to actively work for his defeat.
The Reid campaign made three important strategic decisions in early 2009. To win, the campaign had to use paid media to begin to change the narrative about Senator Reid in Nevada; launch a sustained push to show voters how Senator Reid was using his clout to benefit them; and make the race a choice between Senator Reid and his opponent, rather than a referendum on Reid.
Changing the Narrative: Early Media
In the fall of 2009, GMMB produced the campaign’s first flight of early television ads. It was a gamble to go up so early, but our research found that an uninterrupted diet of unfriendly press was hardening voter perceptions that Reid was out of touch and more interested in waging partisan fights than helping his constituents. The longer we waited, the more difficult it would be to change these perceptions. We attacked on two fronts. First, we produced ads that reminded voters of Reid’s humble beginnings and that located him squarely in Nevada (not Washington). Then we launched the first in a series of ads that would offer specific examples of how Reid was using his clout to help Nevadans get through tough times—in this case, helping to save the struggling City Center construction project.
When health reform legislation passed in March 2010, rather than allow all the framing to come from the other side, we went back on the air, leaning forward into the issue. Our ads featured Reid talking about real people and the very specific ways they would be helped by the bill.
By Election Day, the early spots were long gone. But they had done important work, helping us to shape perceptions of Reid before it was too late.
Laying the Groundwork: No One Can Do More
In the spring of 2010, we launched a sustained push designed to communicate two critical ideas: Reid was focused on the problems Nevadans were confronting every day, and no one could do more to help them than he could. We believed the facts were on our side, but we had to be careful. With Nevada in such distress, over-reaching and making big claims about his efforts risked running afoul of what people were experiencing as they confronted the economic crisis.
So we went in the opposite direction. Our ads offered concrete examples of the ways Reid was using his clout to make a difference in the lives of average Nevadans—like the local veteran who no longer had to drive 300 miles to get treatment because of the VA hospital Reid was getting built or the construction worker who had a job at a new solar field that Reid’s tax credits helped bring to the state. The stories we told were simple, straightforward and intuitive. In an intensely cluttered media environment, the tendency is to produce ads that use jarring visuals and graphics to break through. Here, too, we took a gamble. Our ads were shot in a documentary style, letting our subjects tell their stories in their own words. Supers communicated facts rather than grand claims. We used silence and ambient sound to give the spots a uniquely authentic feel. In our view, the ads worked. On Election Day, Nevadans had a clearer sense that Reid was focused on their problems and that they stood to lose something important if he lost the race.
Sealing the Deal: She’s Just Too Extreme
As the Republican primary unfolded, we carefully prepared for the emergence of any one of the three leading candidates. When the perceived frontrunner, Sue Lowden, stumbled (suggesting that Nevadans could “barter” for health care), our campaign seized on the mistake, helping to sink her candidacy and elevate the eventual winner, Sharron Angle.
As a state legislator, Angle had cast a series of votes that put her far outside the mainstream. Her statements during the primary were similarly extreme—suggesting at one point that rape victims should make “lemonade out of lemons” and at another point that Social Security violated the First Commandment. When she won, we knew what we had to do: disqualify her, using her words (not ours) to do so because voters had no idea what she really stood for.
Our first ads hit just days after she became the Republican nominee, taking her to task for advocating the elimination of Social Security. Over the next four months, our efforts to fill in the picture on Angle were unrelenting. We ran spots about her belief that it wasn’t a senator’s job to fight for jobs, for wanting to abolish the Department of Education, for voting to protect the privacy of sex offenders and for letting insurance companies deny coverage for cancer screening. The spots were anchored with her own words; we let voters see her for themselves. And the spots all led to the same conclusion—that Sharron Angle was too extreme.
The ads proved devastating. Angle’s unfavorables increased more than 30 points in just two months.
End Game: Hispanics and Republicans
By fall, 2010, we were approaching our vote goals for a variety of target groups, including Democrats, moderates and independents. In the closing days, we made special efforts with regard to two groups in particular: Hispanics and wavering Republicans.
The campaign had engaged in a comprehensive, research-driven effort to reach Hispanic voters throughout the election. When our opponent started running ads containing unflattering portrayals of Hispanics, we worked with James Aldrete and his team at Message, Audience & Presentation—who helped to design a terrific Hispanic media program—to repurpose them in ads of our own that ran on Spanish-language outlets. These ads helped drive up turnout among one of our most important target groups.
As Election Day approached, we noticed something else: liberal to moderate Republicans were beginning to swing our way. So we put up new ads featuring Republicans and business leaders warning that electing Sharron Angle would cost Nevada thousands of jobs. The ads helped undermine support for Angle in her base.
By Election Day, we had succeeded in making the race a choice, not a referendum, thanks largely to messages we communicated via television advertisements. In polling, voters were making their choice clear: Reid’s favorables were 10 points higher than Angle’s. After being written off by countless pundits and politicos, Reid went on to win re-election by 5 percentage points.
While it was a stormy night for Democrats around the nation, in Nevada, Reid sat in another Las Vegas hotel suite knowing he would return to Washington as leader of Senate Democrats and a determined senator for Nevada.
Jim Margolis is a partner at GMMB. Anson Kaye is a senior vice president at GMMB. Brandon Hall was Harry Reid’s 2010 campaign manager. Rebecca Lambe is a senior advisor to Harry Reid.