It was August 7, 2012, and I was standing in my hotel room in Kansas City about to shotgun a beer for the first time in my life. I had just made the biggest gamble of my political career—a $1.7 million gamble—and it had paid off. Running for reelection to the U.S. Senate as a Democrat from Missouri, I had successfully manipulated the Republican primary so that in the general election I would face the candidate I was most likely to beat
So how did she do this?
Tom Kiley, my pollster, turned up some findings that seemed crazy to me. For example, less than one quarter of the likely Republican primary voters believed that Barack Obama had been born in the United States. These were the voters who could help tip a Republican primary to an archconservative, but that conservative would have a hard time winning the state. Yes, it was a three-way primary of equally viable candidates, but a subset of energized people with strong religious convictions and serious aversion to gay people, public schools, immigrants and reproductive choice could help elect someone like Akin.
Pollsters can be useful to not just understand your voters, and swinging voters, but also your opposition.
His extreme positions on social issues and ridiculous public statements made him anathema to many independent voters. He sponsored an amendment that would define life as beginning at conception, thereby outlawing common forms of birth control. He voted against repeal of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” legislation. When the Affordable Care Act was being debated, he stood on the House floor and asked for God’s help in keeping the nation from “socialized medicine.” In 2008, he claimed in a House floor speech that it was “common practice” for doctors to conduct abortions on women “who were not actually pregnant.” He had made speeches calling for America to pull out of the United Nations and claiming the government had “a bunch of socialists in the Senate” and a “commie” in the White House.
So how could we maneuver Akin into the GOP driver’s seat?
Akin went on during the campaign after he claimed that women who are victims of “legitimate rape” rarely get pregnant. This not only cost him the seat, but possibly the Republicans the Senate.
Using the guidance of my campaign staff and consultants, we came up with the idea for a “dog whistle” ad, a message that was pitched in such a way that it would be heard only by a certain group of people. I told my team we needed to put Akin’s uber-conservative bona fides in an ad—and then, using reverse psychology, tell voters not to vote for him. And we needed to run the hell out of that ad.
Clever – you make him your main opponent, which makes him more attractive to Republican voters.
My consultants put together a $1.7 million plan. Four weeks out we would begin with a television ad boosting Akin, which my campaign consultant Mike Muir dubbed “A Cup of Tea.” The production costs were pretty low, about $20,000, because we didn’t have to film anything. We just used pictures and voice-overs. We would spend $750,000 at first and run it for eight or nine days. Then we’d go back into the field and test to see if it was working. If it was, we’d dump in more “McCaskill for Senate” money, and we’d add radio and more TV in St. Louis and Kansas City. The second TV buy would approach $900,000. We hoped that some of our friends watching the TV ads would catch on and some of the outside groups would augment the last week with mail and radio. Sure enough, a radio ad calling Akin “too conservative” that went on the air in the closing days of the primary was paid for by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. We would later find out that their rural radio buy was $250,000.
As it turned out, we spent more money for Todd Akin in the last two weeks of the primary than he spent on his whole primary campaign.
That’s a big call – spending almost $2 million not on promoting your own candidacy, but trying to get Republicans to rally around Akin.
But it worked. I wonder how many other candidates have spent money trying to influence the opposition primary?