Campaign Advisors Talk Election Tactics

Senior political advisers for opposing campaigns in the 2000 presidential election spoke frankly to students at Kirkland House on Thursday about what they did to undermine each other’s campaigns with political ads.

Mark McKinnon, former senior adviser to President George W. Bush, and Thomas A. “Tad” Devine, former senior adviser to Vice President Al Gore ’69, shared war stories from the campaign.

The talk, moderated by national political correspondent for the Washington Post Dan Balz, was part of the Harvard Institute of Politics’ “Conversations with Kirkland.”

Event coordinator Eric P. Lesser ’07 said that he chose McKinnon and Devine not only because they are two of the most experienced political ad-makers in the world, but also because they have worked on opposing sides.

Showing several video clips of historical political ads, Balz drew attention to an ad made by McKinnon that focused on Kerry’s inconsistent voting. The ad showed Kerry saying that he voted for one issue before he voted against it.

Cringing at the clip, Devine took responsibility for Kerry’s gaffe, saying that the campaign had stretched Kerry too thin at the time.

“We gave them a lot of amo, and we paid the price for it,” Devine said. “Good ad makers are going to make you pay a price when you serve it up to them.”

Despite a competitive history between the two men, the talk was not combative. Both McKinnon and Devine expressed their admiration for each other. McKinnon attributed this respect to their shared rationale for doing what they do.

“We both recognize that there are good people on both sides of the aisle,” McKinnon said after the event. “We’re really in it for the same reasons.”

Devine said that an effective political ad must, above all, be memorable, impactful, and deliver a message that will resonate with the audience. Political ads, Devine said, are an opportunity to deliver a memorable, and possibly emotional, campaign message to a large audience.

Both former advisers also emphasized the importance of an ad’s credibility. In a political atmosphere dominated by negative ads, McKinnon said, it is increasingly important to test the credibility of political ad content today.

“You want to plant the seed of great doubt in the mind of voters ... when you deliver a negative ad,” Devine said. “People come along, and they want the silver bullet ... that’s going to absolutely destroy your opponent and win the election. And it doesn’t exist.”

McKinnon sees the popularity of negative campaign ads as a product of their effectiveness in drawing voter attention. But voters are becoming increasingly disgusted with negative campaign ads, McKinnon said. He predicted that candidates will likely shift to more positive ad content.

Balz added that voters may see a decrease in television campaign ads due to an increase in online political advertising.

“We all may think that television ads don’t have the impact they once had ... but the role of television advertising is still enormously important and a very central part of any successful campaign,” Balz said.

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