Joe McGinniss published a classic book about the 1968 election of Richard Nixon, "The Selling of the President." On the cover of one edition was a box of soap. The 1960s did not have the first television ads, but the ads were more polished in the sixties than in the fifties. The sixties was the beginning of the blow-dried, good looking, smooth-talking candidates.
The problem with television ads selling a candidate is voters often learn little about the candidate or the candidate’s real views and capabilities. The candidate is sold like soap. Of course one does not have to wonder why voters become cynical of their government and politicians. Voters are sold a bad product, lied to about the product, and then the candidate turns out to be unsatisfactory.
About five decades later after McGuiness’s book, some voters are still basing their choice of candidate on television ads — as if, from the ads, voters can come to know any more about the candidates than voters might learn about the personal qualities of actors by watching a fictional television program.
At this exact moment, observers may argue soap and candidates are being sold in a major election in Georgia. A mere five months after the presidential election, citizens of the sixth district of Georgia are back in the thick of an intense political campaign with national symbolic importance. The election is a signal of how well Trump and the Republicans are doing, and it is chance for the Democrats to regain some momentum lost in the November balloting. The election is April 18 and eighteen candidates are on the ballot, all hoping to win the congressional district seat of Tom Price, who resigned to work in the Trump administration.
The district, in northern metropolitan Atlanta, has transitioned, as has much of Georgia, to a more diverse population, giving Democrats hope that they can defeat the Republicans, a feat not accomplished since the Jimmy Carter era. Nevertheless, the district still trends Republican with Trump narrowly winning in 2016.
If one candidate wins more than fifty percent, that candidate is elected to the United States House of Representatives. If no candidate attracts fifty percent, there is a runoff between the top two candidates on June 20.
What makes this election somewhat unique is both Democrats (5) and Republicans (11) are on the same section of the ballot — all eighteen of them (including 2 independents), and none of them are extremely well-known. Three of the Republicans have a name recognition that helps them while none of the Democrats are well-known in the state or district. While the candidates’ names are listed together, they are differentiated by a party label.
For the cunning political operatives, this ballot structure may offer Democrats a unique opportunity to win. With no strong Democratic candidates, if one candidate can capture the Democratic support, then use the Obama grassroots mobilizing machine to turn out voters in this reasonably low-profile election, a Democrat might obtain half the votes plus one and win the election, never having to go one-on-one with a single Republican candidate. Moreover, an additional strategy of the Democratic candidate could be to cloud the party identification, rarely admitting in ads a party allegiance and instead claiming to be a free thinker and not tied to the ideological dogma of a political party.
One Democratic candidate, Jon Ossoff, appears to be following the above strategy. Ossoff has broken out of the pack; according to local reports, he leads all candidates, holding about forty percent of the support. How has an unknown candidate rocketed into first place?
The Democratic national organization and supporters have thrown all its money to Ossoff. He has raised more than $8 million, with 95 percent of the money coming from out of state. In addition to the national party support, he has had many small donors, suggesting the Democratic Party, stung by the loss to Trump, is encouraging loyal supporters across the nation to continue the fight in Georgia.
Ossoff’s ads are smooth, slick, professional, and ubiquitous on Atlanta television. Initially, his ads did not reveal that he was a Democrat. He claimed to be pragmatic, interested in saving tax money, doing what makes sense and striving for good government. It appears the sales pitch for Ossoff is much like the pitch to sell soap. One might speculate this is an excellent strategy to win prospective voters’ support before they realized in which party he belongs. Significantly, Ossoff’s ads usually do not reveal how he would vote on the crucial issues before Congress.
If Ossoff wins with this campaign strategy, it will be because he concealed his political views, down-played his Democratic Party connection rather than the election being any referendum on Trump and the Republicans. Of course, this would not be what the national Democrats and their media stooges would report. They would claim the election represented a rejection of Trump’s policies.
As Ossoff’s support in the polls increased, national Republican’s realized he could win the election while the eleven Republican candidates competed for the remaining forty nine percent of the vote. The national Republicans understood they could not wait until the Georgia local election had settled on one Republican candidate because it might never come to that if Ossoff could reach fifty percent.
The Republican Party has begun running ads against Ossoff, claiming he is Nancy Pelosi’s boy, does not even live in the district, and is backed by liberal money.
With less than a week before the election, it will be interesting to see if the Democrats have snuck up on the Republicans. Will the Democrat’s plan, concealing Ossoff’s political views and selling the candidate like soap, succeed?
John Havick has a Ph.D. in political science. He was a professor at Georgia Institute of Technology for many years, authored several books and a number of articles, including the widely cited "The Impact of the Internet on a Television-Based Society." His work has appeared in The New York Times, and his recent book, "The Ghosts of NASCAR: The Harlan Boys and the First Daytona 500," is available at ghostsofnascar.com. For more of his reports, Go Here Now.
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