Jon Downs is a partner at FP1 Strategies, a Republican public affairs, advertising and media relations firm. During the 2012 cycle, the firm did work for all four Republican Party committees, as well as media work for Ted Cruz in Texas and Allen West in Florida. During the Republican primary season, Downs also created ads for Ron Paul’s presidential campaign.

C&E: You did one of the most notable negative ads of the cycle—the one that featured Patrick Murphy’s mug shot in his race against Allen West in Florida. How did that ad come together?

Downs: It’s obviously sensitive subject matter. It’s not every day that you see a mug shot like that in an ad. So we wanted to handle it appropriately, and we felt to do that we had to make an ad that rose to a certain level—not something that was not going to be totally gratuitous. Although I’m sure there are some who say it was. We wanted to do something that wasn’t just a straight character assault but something that framed the race—and it did. This was an important time for our country and this was an important race and that’s kind of what led us to that point. It would have been pretty easy to just hit him with a straight-up nasty negative and have just said, “Here, look at this guy’s mug shot for 30 seconds.” But at the end of the day elections are about choices, and we felt like this ad set up the choice pretty clearly.  We also went with that contrast ad in October. I don’t know that everyone would have done that, but I’m proud of the ad that we put together.

C&E: How was the spot received by the campaign and the candidate? Was there any hesitation?

Downs: You know people are surprised when I say this but Allen West was never the type of guy to say, “Let’s go out and rip this guy’s heart out.” That’s not the kind of guy he is. In fact, he was very clear—clearer than some other clients I’ve worked for—that he wanted to be fair and he wanted to be about issues. That’s part of the reason we framed the ad that way because it was about two different types of people and who would be helping lead the country at a difficult time. He was OK with it because we framed it that way, and frankly we got less backlash on it than some might have expected. Right after it ran a lot of people said the race was over. I wish they were right in that analysis. They were also running some pretty good ads on the other side against us.

C&E: How did your work with Ron Paul’s campaign come about?

Downs: Consulting is a bit of a small world, but of course it gets a little bit bigger when you’re talking about someone like Ron Paul who doesn’t exactly follow the establishment consulting selections. But long story short, a guy named Trygve Olson was a consultant for the National Republican Senatorial Committee in 2010, and he was sent out to do Rand Paul’s Senate race in Kentucky. He ended up being brought on as a consultant for Ron Paul’s presidential race and he knew of my work, and so he suggested they bring me in for a pitch.

C&E: What was the reaction from colleagues in more establishment Republican circles when you started working for Paul?

Downs: I think it was mixed. My feeling on this is what I said when I met with the campaign—a lot of who Ron Paul is simply isn’t understood by the general  public or the consulting community for that matter. I felt like he had such a great story to tell, especially given where we were as a party—dealing with issues of spending and big government. These are things this guy has been saying forever. Not only is he right on the issues, but he’s so credible on this. And those are the two key ingredients right now. Obviously on foreign policy there are some differences with the party. But I was excited to tell his story. There were certainly some people who didn’t see the full picture as I did—the establishment types. But while it certainly wasn’t just my ads that did it, I do think through that race a lot of people were able to see Ron Paul in a different light.

C&E: What was the creative approach you took with those ads? They looked nothing like any of Ron Paul’s previous spots.

Downs: That was one of my promises. I’m a big believer in doing ads that look and feel different. I’m a believer in doing things that have a little bit of an edge when it calls for it. We were able to do that across the board in that race, and we had a great platform to work from because we had a candidate who was so right on these issues and so pure on so many of them. In a race for president of the United States you can’t be too big in your advertising. This is the leader of the free world. If I ran some of those ads for a guy running for Congress or attorney general, it might have been a little bit much.

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.