It's a high-stakes, record-setting race for the White House. More than $100 million has been spent on TV advertising—with no end in sight. Come November, there will be two happy beneficiaries: the winner and local TV.
Stations in 17 swing states are raking in a big slice of the $1.6 billion projected for all 2004 political ad spending. But the real action is the contest for the presidency. So far, President Bush has raised $185 million. The Democrats weigh in with well over $100 million. With liberal allies such as MoveOn.org, The Media Fund, and America Coming Together, they are investing in revenge—still smarting from what they see as the 2000 theft of the White House. All are pinning their hopes on one man.
It's not John Kerry.
The man of the hour, the man behind that man, is Bob Shrum. Kerry doesn't make a media move without him. He doesn't speak without consulting him. Which is why some Democrats are quietly worried. It's bad enough, they murmur, that Shrum is poisonous and divisive. What's worse, he was a key figure in four previous Democratic presidential campaigns. All lost.
Yet Shrum, 60, remains a major player. He crafted the populist philosophy that has been the party's hallmark for two decades. He helped elect nearly one-third of the Democrats in the Senate and is considered the dean of Democratic speechwriters. His services are in such demand that both John Edwards and Kerry vied for them. Kerry got Shrum—and Shrum got huge chunks of power and millions in ad dollars. Shrum can be a double-edged sword.
So why was Jim Margolis—the architect of Kerry's resurrection in Iowa—nixed? After all, it was Margolis who created the stirring "Mythic Hero" spot—using Vietnam footage to reveal the unknown Kerry—that won Iowa and jet-propelled his political victories.
What's it really about? "It's always about money," says Paul Begala, a key adviser to former President Clinton.
"It's usually about both money and
power," counters Mark McKinnon, media director of Bush's reelection campaign. Shrum had no comment, and Margolis admits only to being "dismayed" by his unplanned departure.
Margolis is still doing media buys, but he's no longer involved in producing ads. Media consultants are paid by commission, which triggered Margolis's battle with Shrum. The Kerry camp decided to reduce their commission percentages since it plans to spend much more on ads than originally budgeted. Margolis agreed to take less, but he insisted on continuing to split all revenue 50-50 with Shrum, who refused. Rather than take less than his rival, Margolis walked, concluding, "It was better for everyone for me to step back."
Better for Shrum, but not necessarily better for Kerry's White House ambitions. After winning the internal scuffle with Margolis, Shrum's firm is producing all of Kerry's TV ads—for a campaign some Democrats fear is adrift. Informed political operatives and media observers alike see it in disarray, lacking a coherent theme, focus, and message.
To combat the unprecedented barrage of Republican attack ads, Kerry has just launched a record-setting $27.5 million ad buy to introduce himself to voters. One problem: Independent polls suggest voters may have formed their image of Kerry from Bush's blitzkrieg of negativity, which kicked off March 2, two days after Kerry became the presumptive nominee. The Bush team spent a staggering $60 million to portray him as a tax-raising flip-flopper, soft on defense.
While Kerry's new ads target his bio and service in Vietnam, they need to repair the damage already inflicted, particularly in battleground states, like Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Michigan. Which is why those ads will play heavily there, as well as in Louisiana and Colorado.
One key member of Kerry's inner circle of six is optimistic. "People tend to overreact to relatively small variations in national polls," the insider says. "If they looked underneath, they would see what I see."
"Looking underneath" means focusing on those hotly contested states, where, according to the Kerry camp, polls show him leading.
"To people who understand this stuff, this is the natural ebb and flow of a campaign," the source adds. "Elite reporters at The New York Times and The Washington Post
may think they're smart, but we care a lot more about the St. Louis Post-Dispatch
and the Cleveland Plain Dealer."
Emerging from the primary season nearly broke, Kerry is making his stunning commercial buys with the $80 million raised this year alone. (In New York recently, he pulled in a record $6.5 million in one night.) He can also avoid attack ads, since Democrat interest groups do it for him.
Kerry's current spots, Shrum's partner Michael Donilon told the Los Angeles Times, show he "demonstrated great strength and sound judgment in very tough situations. He's done that all his life. That's the key to his life story."
The two new 60-second spots, "Lifetime" and "Heart" paint broad strokes in Kerry's career. They tout his voluntary naval service, five medals, and testimony from two of his military comrades. In addition to his Vietnam duty, the ads note Kerry's years at Yale, growing up with parents committed to service, his record as a prosecutor fighting for victims' rights, and his tenure as a U.S. senator, battling for health care for children. It also claims Kerry cast the "decisive vote" to create 20 million new jobs.
But do they have the power of the Margolis-produced "Mythic Hero" spot?
To Margolis, that ad was a defining moment: "It pulled together the candidate's bio, his passion, and his plans for his presidency."
As the new commercials roll out, so do questions about the effect the bad blood is having on Kerry's campaign. Shrum may be steering the campaign forward; Margolis put it back on track.
"Jim Jordan [then-campaign manager] was the key person in bringing me in, but John Kerry made the decision," Margolis recalls. "At the time, early 2001, no other media firm was involved." In the fledgling Kerry operation, Margolis became an integral part of the Kerry cadre, along with Jordan, pollster Mark Mellman, and a handful of others. All were involved in a mixture of strategy, fundraising, political fieldwork, and media, but Margolis focused on his specialty: advertising. By fall 2001, he began filming "some strong, compelling stuff," including a segment with Del Sandusky, one of the "Band of Brothers" who served with Kerry in Vietnam.
Margolis also obtained 31/2 hours of Super 8 film shot in Vietnam by Kerry. Of special importance was a rare 90-second sequence of the candidate himself, filmed by another "brother." Margolis recalls, "I had to pry it out of his hands. He didn't want to appear to be exploiting Vietnam." By early 2003, everything looked rosy. Until Howard Dean tapped into the rage against the war in Iraq, and he became the man to beat.
How did Team Kerry bring the candidate back from the dead?
According to Margolis, then-campaign manager Jordan made the campaign's single most important decision last October, shortly before he lost a turf battle with Shrum and was forced out. He decreed that the path to the presidency led directly through Iowa. "Jim and I knew that the numbers in New Hampshire wouldn't move without something dramatic happening in Iowa," Margolis says. "So that's where we placed the bet."
That meant allocating the majority of ad dollars in Iowa—and producing a killer spot. Margolis pulled out the Sandusky footage, combined it with Kerry's Super 8 film and conjured up a campaign-altering event. Suddenly John Kerry—the man and the message—came into sharp focus. Overnight, Iowans clicked with Kerry. Soon, Kerry vaulted into the lead in the race for the nomination—a lead he never surrendered.
Can Shrum repeat the Margolis miracle?
Now the most influential of Kerry's image-makers, it is Shrum who is defining his candidacy. Which is why many Kerry insiders believe the election will be won—or lost—by the guy who isn't running.