South Dakota Reality TV
Daschle Has Advertised Steadily While Thune Stays off the Airwaves
With less than seven months remaining before Election Day, Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and former Rep. John Thune (R) are pursuing drastically different advertising strategies as they try to hold their bases while appealing to the small group of undecided voters who are likely to decide the election.
Daschle has been on television almost continually since July 2003; in that time he has run 11 different campaign commercials, an effort that has cost him roughly $1 million. Daschle has spent nearly $10 million total on his re-election effort since 1999.
Thune has yet to run a single ad since formally entering the race at the beginning of the year, and his campaign said no immediate plans are in the works to take to the airwaves.
Thune’s decision to allow Daschle nine months to outline his positive accomplishments without any sort of response is unorthodox in modern campaigns but is part of a larger strategy, according to Thune campaign manager Dick Wadhams.
That strategy has created “an underlying nervousness that we are not playing the game [the Daschle campaign] wants to play,” Wadhams said.
“When John entered the race on Jan. 5 it was clear even then that Daschle had been on TV since July and the public polls indicated it wasn’t having much of an impact,” he added.
Wadhams also noted that in February — and again last month — independent surveys were released that showed Daschle with leads of 7 and 5 points, which, Wadhams argued, are virtually unchanged from polling done last year.
Privately, Democrats cite internal polls that show Daschle with a slightly larger lead.
What Daschle’s ad campaign has done is “kept his head above water,” according to Wadhams. “They have propped him up, not moved him up.”
Not surprisingly, the Daschle campaign vehemently disagreed with that assessment.
“Tom Daschle has built a solid lead,” said deputy campaign manager Dan Pfeiffer. The ad campaign has “cemented an overall favorable impression of Tom Daschle in voters’ minds.”
Pfeiffer points out that Daschle has not had a competitive race since 1986, when he defeated Sen. Jim Abdnor (R), and said the ad campaign has reacquainted voters with the Senator’s accomplishments.
Daschle media consultant Karl Struble was more blunt about Thune’s decision not to run ads.
“Thune is doing what he has to do because he has no alternative,” said Struble. “They don’t have the resources to compete in a long campaign.”
At the end of 2003, Daschle had nearly $4 million on hand; Thune had not begun active fundraising. Both candidates will file reports April 15 with the Federal Election Commission documenting their contributions and expenditures from Jan. 1 to March 31.
Hanging over all of these strategy discussions is the 2002 race between Thune and Sen. Tim Johnson (D), which was decided by just 524 votes—the narrowest margin of any of the 34 Senate contests that year.
That race began earlier and wound up costing more than any other previous contest in the state. Thune went on the air in October 2001, eventually running 47 different ads. Johnson began his advertising campaign in January 2002 and ran 42 distinct spots. The two campaigns spent $12 million combined, a total that does not include the vast issue ad campaigns by the national parties and a slew of interest groups on both sides of the partisan divide.
While Daschle and Thune admit there was something of a hangover from the 2002 campaign, they disagree about how best to handle that lingering voter discontent. Pfeiffer maintained that after 2002, voters were not sick of politics but rather of negative politics.
“After the 2002 election both campaigns have to monitor the tone and tenor of their ads,” he said. “Our ads have been entirely positive and issue oriented.”
Pfeiffer predicted that once the Thune ad campaign begins, the former Congressman will quickly turn to negative ads.
“John Thune cannot win this race without going very, very negative,” Pfeiffer said.
As evidence of that claim, he pointed to a recent Zogby International poll in which the South Dakota Senator had the support of one-fifth of self-identifying Republicans even after enduring several years of attacks from Republican interest groups led by the Club for Growth.
Wadhams acknowledged that “contrasts will be drawn between John Thune and Tom Daschle” and even previewed a likely line of attack.
“When Daschle is home in his $3 million mansion in Washington he is saying one thing, and saying another when he takes the time to visit South Dakota,” Wadhams said.
Daschle along with his wife Linda — a lobbyist at Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz — bought a $1.9 million home in Washington, D.C., in 2003. The Club for Growth ran an ad last August targeting Daschle’s “ritzy” house.
Wadhams also said that Daschle’s supposed focus on positive campaigning is belied by the likely future presence of third party groups working on his behalf to trash Thune.
“As the Daschle campaign tries to wrap itself in virtue, they know good and well what is coming down the pike from their extremist allies,” said Wadhams.
Pfeiffer said Wadhams’ comments justify Daschle’s early expenditures.
“We know they are going to run a nasty, negative campaign,” he said. “We got out ahead of that.”