The TV ad hits hard and fast, like some upstart boxer who had better score early and often: "Do you think electric bills in Dallas-Fort Worth are too high?" asks a narrator whose sense of urgency is emphasized by manic music. The screen splits between Governor Rick Perry, looking his usual telegenic self, and a quick montage of telling images: an elderly couple fretting over their electric bill, power lines, a hand reaching for a thermostat, as if to symbolically turn up the heat on Perry.
"Thanks to Rick Perry's handpicked PUC chairman," continues the narrator, "we have been overcharged millions. The Perry administration price hike is now under legal challenge." With a wink and a nod from Perry, the ad delivers its stinging tagline: "Rick Perry. We didn't elect him. We don't have to keep him.
The Sanchez camp rolled out this 15-second spot in early May as part of its million-dollar-a-week statewide media blitz. Not to be undone, the Perry camp quickly mounted a counterattack.
"Why is Tony Sanchez running negative, misleading attack ads?" asks a second unseen narrator, as if to parody the first. "Is Tony Sanchez so desperate, he has already resorted to scaring Texans?" The ad then takes a big sound bite out of Sanchez. "No Vision. No Leadership. No Clue. Shame on you, Tony Sanchez."
Welcome to the 2002 Texas gubernatorial race, where the politics are personal, the conventional wisdom unwise and the only thing flowing faster than the money is the mud. Traditionally, the campaign season doesn't heat up until Labor Day, but there is nothing traditional about this race. A millionaire Hispanic businessman who has never held elected office has committed his personal fortune to finance his campaign. His Republican opponent is the incumbent, but he inherited the governor's mansion and not his mandate. And neither candidate inspires much enthusiasm, unlike the larger-than-life characters--George Bush, Ann Richards, Bill Clements--that Texans half-expect from their governors.
But just because there is no historical parallel to this race, does that mean it had to get so ugly so fast?
The Perry camp says it was only acting in self-defense, ironically adopting Bill Clinton's campaign strategy, which says you don't let negative attacks go unanswered because people will start to believe them. "Sanchez has run a barrage of six negative ads," says Perry spokesman Ray Sullivan. "We felt it was important to take on the tone if not the specifics of these attack ads."
The Sanchez camp has its own spin. "These are not attack ads; they are educational ads," contends Sanchez communications director Mark Sanders. "We were educating the public about what a do-nothing governor Perry has been the last two years."
But it's the Sanchez campaign that's learning to count, and the numbers it sees from recent polls may be forcing it to go negative earlier than planned. On May 20, Austin-based Montgomery and Associates, an independent research firm with strong Democratic ties, released its survey, which showed Perry with a commanding 25-point lead over Sanchez. The Sanchez camp immediately questioned the results. ("It's flat-out wrong," Sanders claims.) But its own internal polling showed Sanchez behind by a disappointing 12 to 15 percent. "Frankly, I didn't expect Sanchez to be as far behind as our survey revealed," say pollster Jeff Montgomery.
A poll, however, is just a snapshot of a race at a given point in time. Numbers change and so do political fortunes. And if there is anyone's fortune that can make those numbers change, it is Tony Sanchez's. To close the gap, he had little choice but to get aggressive early. "You are not going to beat a Republican governor in a Republican state by waiting around until the fall," says Austin political consultant Bill Miller. "And television is the most powerful medium for attack."
As much as people claim they hate negative ads, they are effective, capable of savaging a candidate's favorable rating (which in Perry's case is "excellent," according to Montgomery) in the shortest possible time.
Sanchez may believe that his time will be cut short by the commemoration of September 11, which could make the public less tolerant of negative attack ads. "The political message is going to be more constrained in September," says Harvey Kronberg, editor of the Quorum Report, a Web-based political hot sheet. "Particularly when everyone is overcome with reliving the emotions of the World Trade Center bombing."
Since no candidate has gone on the attack this early, it's difficult to gauge whether Sanchez's strategy is working. "The public may not be receptive to attack ads when they come out of season like this," Miller says. "But if Sanchez doesn't narrow this lead within 30 days, his campaign may be in a world of hurt."
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By attacking early, Sanchez not only baited Perry into going negative, he has also baited him into spending his money. "The Sanchez team figures that for every dollar it can get Perry to spend now, it's a dollar he can't spend in October," Kronberg says.
There is some sentiment among Perry supporters that it's a mistake for Perry to retaliate so soon, since Sanchez's costly ad blitz may do more harm to Sanchez and might even help Perry. "You have a candidate [Sanchez] with tremendous financial resources who is spending a whole lot of money over a long period of time," says Fort Worth-based Republican pollster Brian Eppstein. "Not only is that overkill, it dilutes the impact of his message." It also has the unintended effect, Eppstein says, of energizing Perry's troops, who become more committed to the cause by what they perceive as unfair tactics. "You just wonder if Perry is going to have to report a contribution from Sanchez on his next campaign filing."
Negative advertising may rally party activists, making the race more partisan, but both candidates realize this is a campaign about voter turnout. To win, each side must go beyond its traditional base, capturing swing voters not aligned with a particular party and soft voters not aligned with a particular candidate. Although turnout among minorities is historically low in off-presidential years, Democrats are banking on a surge in support from minorities invigorated by the possibility of electing a Hispanic governor and an African-American senator (Ron Kirk). Perry is counting on conservatives of every stripe to vote their political consciences, whether they are Republicans, Democrats or Libertarians.
Yet attack ads suppress voter turnout, as independent-minded voters are turned off by what smacks of politics as usual. So if the candidates persist with the same degree of rancor or worse and ratchet up their attacks as Election Day approaches, they may be provoking the very thing they need to avoid: an electorate too pissed off to vote.