David Orentlicher's path to the Indiana House of Representatives was never going to be easy. His Republican opponent was Jim Atterholt, a two-term incumbent, a smooth campaigner with strong ties to the Indiana Republican establishment. Redistricting had moved Atterholt from a safe seat to a more competitive district, but one that retained a small Republican majority. And David, for all his sharp intelligence and his strong grounding in law, health care, and public policy, was a political neophyte.
That David ultimately was able to win the election, by a 37-vote margin, is a tribute to his 18 months of intense work and his rapid ascent of the political learning curve. David knocked on every door and went to every neighborhood meeting that he could. In candidate forums, despite Atterholt's polished presence, David largely kept Atterholt on the defensive. As election day drew near, David was confident of victory. And yet, when initial returns were completed on election night, David trailed by 28 votes. A double-check of the precinct totals gave David the victory (confirmed by a subsequent recount), but it was a near thing. What happened?
In my view, David was nearly undone by a negative ad. Not one against him, but one that his campaign ran against Atterholt.
In the last couple of weeks of October, Atterholt brought his campaign money to bear, blanketing the airwaves with advertising, more advertising than I've ever seen for a state legislative race. The advertisement was content-free, but it bathed Atterholt in a warm, soft-focused light, David attempted a similar ad, but it was less effective, in part because it ran far less frequently and in part because David projects a less cuddly public persona than does Atterholt. The Orentlicher campaign needed to find a way to draw a clear distinction between the candidates on matters of policy, and to do so within the context of a 30-second television ad.
This shouldn't have been difficult. Attherholt is a career politician, a protégé of unpopular Congressman Dan Burton, and over the course of two terms he had compiled a remarkably conservative voting record, one out of step with the well-educated professionals who made up a large percentage of the district's Republican voters. On a number of issues, especially education and health care, Atterholt's voting record, combined with David's background and experience, left Atterholt vulnerable.
The campaign chose guns.
At one level, I understand the decision—the closing weeks of the campaign were conducted in the immediate aftermath of the D.C.-area sniper shootings, and so it was thought that guns would be on the voters' minds. It was, however, a politically tone-deaf choice—it failed to recognize that in the last few election cycles the terms of the gun debate have shifted. Worse, the resulting ad hewed closely to the standard negative script: it foreswore the unflattering picture of Atterholt, but it juxtaposed a small photo of Atterholt with grainy footage of masked men wielding firearms, with ominous music and a voiceover warning that Atterholt had voted to put guns back into the hands of criminals. As if Atterholt actually wanted to give guns to criminals. As if there had been a "Put Guns Back in the Hands of Criminals Act of 2001," for which Atterholt had voted.
My sense, based admittedly on limited anecdotal evidence and my own observation, is that the ad backfired. It may have played acceptably to the Democratic base (although I for one thought it was terrible), but it alienated a number of Orentlicher-leaning Republicans and independents, and it left David open to the inevitable, and effective, counterattack ad. When I worked the polls on election day, a number of voters went out of their way to tell me that the gun ad had cost David their vote.
As it turned out, David survived, albeit by a sliver of a margin. And I don't think the ad was entirely his choice—in the closing weeks of the campaign, he was bombarded by advice from the state Democratic party, which had an intense interest in the outcome in this battleground district. My impression is that he got some bad advice and, as a political newcomer in the heat of a campaign's closing weeks, took it. But I hope that the experience will serve as a cautionary note, because I am convinced that David won not thanks to the ad, but despite it.
There's a reason commercial entities don't advertise like this: it can backfire, and badly.
(The full Doonesbury strip appears here.)