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May 15, 2014 4:40 PM Viral Gimmicks and Media Coverage

By Ed Kilgore

Meant to note earlier this week a John Sides post at the Monkey Cage questioning whether Joni Ernst’s famous hog-castrating ad is really the source of her recent momentum in the IA GOP SEN race. He doesn’t venture a guess as to whether Iowa Republicans saw the ad on their own and “squealed” with delight (though he does note it attracted 400,000 YouTube views the first three days), but does document that it drove a lot of media attention her way, which had to help her name ID and amplified whatever pleasure conservatives took from the content, such as it was.

I’m glad Sides is doing some checking now, because there is a lamentable tendency of political writers to attribute the outcome of a particular election to whatever most caught the eye in the weeks and months before balloting.

Here’s an excerpt from a 2008 Democratic Strategist post I wrote about campaign gimmicks in the midst of the Joe the Plumber hysteria of that year:

[A] vivid example of questionably successful gimmickry, similar in its fundamental stupidity to the Joe the Plumber furor, occurred in my home state of Georgia in 1992. A Republican warhorse, Paul Coverdell, was running against incumbent Democratic Senator Wyche Fowler. For most of the campaign, Fowler maintained a large and steady lead in the polls. One day, according to the legend, a beehived grandmother from South Georgia named Margie Lopp called up Coverdell HQ and sang them a campaign jingle she had composed.
Now Margie’s jingle was not only content-free (its deepest line was : “Let’s put Paul Coverdell in the Senate and put Wyche Fowler out!”), but gratingly annoying in a bad nursery rhyme sort of way. For whatever reason, the Coverdell campaign made it the sole sum and substance of about ten thousand radio and television ads. Political observers universally mocked it, and even Coverdell’s staff later admitted they were flooded with calls from supporters complaining about it.
But lo and behold, on Election Night, Coverdell ran surprisingly well, and though Fowler ran ahead of him, an archaic Georgia law requiring a majority of the general election vote for victory knocked the incumbent into a rare runoff. I’ll never forget watching local election coverage from the Coverdell party, where a gaggle of young Republicans were defiantly singing the Lopp classic. Coverdell went on to win the runoff (thanks mainly to a predictably small turnout), and headed to the Senate, where his main accomplishment was quarterbacking the Senate Republican fight against health care reform. Post hoc ergo propter hoc: Margie beat Wyche Fowler, and indirectly, Hillary Clinton.
As it happens, Coverdell’s win, despite the polls, wasn’t that surprising. Aside from the weird 50% requirement, Georgia was beginning its big trend towards the GOP about then (Bill Clinton won the state very narrowly in the presidential contest that year). And Fowler, a good and relatively progressive Democrat, had a bad habit of personally antagonizing key voting blocs (his hostile interaction with gay/lesbian activists led a significant number of Atlantans to vote Libertarian, feeding Fowler’s non-majority). My guess is that Coverdell didn’t win so much as Fowler lost. But… Coverdell’s Lopp jingle was the most stray phenomenon that accompanied his surprise win.

I went on to note that a later GOP candidate in Georgia brought Margie Lopp on board with a fresh jingle, and lost dismally.

Now Ernst’s viral ad owed much of its appeal to timing: it appeared what seemed like moments after Democratic Senate candidate Bruce Braley suffered embarrassment from a leaked video of him appearing to disparage the legal knowledge of Iowa farmers (as represented by Chuck Grassley) before a roomful of out-of-state trial lawyers. There’s now a risk Ernst is overdoing it with ads touting her blood-spilling expertise. Politics aside, I personally hope it backfires, because it’s just a matter of time until other candidates in other states begin emulating it in the hopes journalists will point and laugh and invite others to join the hog-castratin’ fun.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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