C&E: What are the biggest takeaways for you from 2012?
Downs: The Democrats won a lot of races, so you have to give them their due. There has been a lot made about Obama’s media buying. It’s not as cutting-edge or different as some like to make it out to be. It’s also a little bit easier to do with the budget they had. Not everyone can afford to cover all their bases and then air reruns on the Cartoon Network. I do think the buying efforts are something to be looked at, but there are things on our side that are similar. We just didn’t win.
A lot has been made about the Super PACs and their role. I think a lot of things were done well, and then there are a lot of things that will be done better the next time. It’s always tough when you’re airing ads from third party groups. I thought the Democratic Majority PAC actually did some very good work on that side. I know just through the grapevine that a lot of what they did was commit to a plan early on, shoot a lot of ads, put a lot of money into production up front and then just execute that plan. A lot of times that’s the stumbling block with an outside group—they tend to be a bit more reactionary and sometimes the ads or the message will suffer as a result. Those guys seemed to be full steam ahead and less reactionary.
C&E: What’s the problem with your party right now? Is it message, tactics?
Downs: There are a lot of things we have to do much better. There are issues that we have to do a better job of communicating on. But similar things were said about the Democratic Party in 2010, so I think that gets lost in this. If there’s a tactic to figure out a way to turn people out like Barack Obama did, then we need to adopt it. I’m not so sure that’s what it was though. The Obama campaign had an outstanding field program, but if you employ those same tactics with John Kerry or Al Gore on the ticket, do you get that same turnout? I’m not so sure you do. What they did on the ground is extremely impressive, and it’s something we need to look at and learn from. But I think much like the Super PACs, everyone might be singing a bit of a different tune in two years.
C&E: How well have GOP consultants done when it comes to integrating a digital component into campaigns?
Downs: On the spectrum of consultants, I’m on the younger side so I do believe that there’s a new voice and a new approach that my age group probably takes. I hope that different style and different way of packaging the message is reflected in my ads. As far as digital goes, there’s no rule that says you need to allocate a certain amount for TV and then a certain amount for digital. From both a messaging perspective and a tactical perspective, we absolutely have to not get stuck in the ruts of the past. I think I and many others are committed to doing that, but I’m also not hitting the panic button with a sledgehammer here.
C&E: What are those ruts you feel like the GOP is stuck in?
Downs: I don’t know that it’s the GOP as much as it is political consulting in general. From an advertising perspective I’ve tried to turn the traditional positive-negative approaches on their heads. I’m going to try to do more of it next cycle, too. With my positive advertising, I find myself being a little bit more aggressive and a little bit more punchy. With my negative advertising, I find myself getting a little bit softer, a little bit simpler in the graphics. In the past, the positive ads were pretty straightforward—you had the pretty candidate, the simple text and you smiled at the camera and said a couple of nice things. With the negatives you had hard hitting graphics and you were yelling about the “liberal.” I do the opposite.
Voters are looking for someone who has a reason for why they want to be in office. On the flip side, I think people are tired of being yelled at. I think we have to be a little more reasoned when we’re talking about the opponent. If there’s a rut, that’s probably the one I’d point to. Heavy graphics, booming music and deep-throated voice talent aren’t the way to go 10 times out of 10. Doing things that are simpler, more honest and less aggressive will oftentimes get the point across.