If Barack Obama’s rise in popularity is due to his “Audacity of Hope,” then Hillary’s downfall could be proportionately attributed to her “Arrogance of Inevitability.” If this inverse relationship seems obvious in the Democratic primaries, it was perhaps less obvious, though no less true, on the Republican side of the ballot box. As the GOP faithful set our clocks forward to the Spring hangover of John McCain, we’ve begun to ponder just how it happened that a man whose campaign was all but dead last summer, and who is so reviled by so many quarters of the party, could so easily be waltzing to a September coronation in Minneapolis. In short, I would argue, McCain has Rudolph Giuliani’s own arrogance of inevitability to thank for his ascendancy.
The real mystery of Campaign 2008 remains why Giuliani’s campaign imploded to the point of irrelevancy. Why didn’t he challenge in Iowa? Why did he retreat from New Hampshire? And why did he count on Florida so much when the campaign was effectively over by then?
As a sometime advisor to the Giuliani campaign, I had a bit of an insider’s view of how the campaign lost the double-digit lead we enjoyed last summer. As you may recall, that was the time of the soft primaries of fundraising, organization, low-cost trial balloons and online campaigning. It was also the summer of Obama Girl. The gyrating, singing vixen was the first real sign to America that we had an election going on. It was the beginning of the YouTube-ification of the campaign, and every candidate knew it. Except one.
While Obama Girl battled a lurid Hot-4-Hillary user-generated campaign ad to gin up excitement for the Democratic primary, an equally provocative ad shook up the Republican blogs and YouTube channels. A series of anonymous ads, featuring a middle-aged valet driving a minivan and spouting out sometimes funny, sometimes incoherent diatribes, didn’t get the national attention that the more well-endowed Democratic eye candy got. The ads, known only by their YouTube channel name “Abrad2345“, portrayed the driver as a self-proclaimed Giuliani supporter, but so over-the-top, that it comes across as a satirical jab at Giuliani himself. To make matters more pointed, the ads all ended with a tagline for the Giuliani campaign and a link to the official campaign website.
Not surprisingly, the ads were dismissed by the Giuliani campaign as harmless pranks that had no relevancy to the real business of raising money and preparing for primary season. But as ABC News and The New York Times starting looking into who was behind the ads, they linked them to a consulting company that had been responsible for the infamous Swift Boat ads from the 2004 campaign. Naturally, that firm denied any involvement with the stealth ads. The whole point of a stealth campaign is to have plausible deniability. It’s worth noting, though, that at a time last July when the McCain campaign was literally reduced to buying coach tickets for the Senator, one of their few existing consulting contracts was with these very same consultants.
And let’s think for a moment about what would have been going through the minds of the few staff left on the McCain campaign: They needed to slowly chip away at fellow traveler Rudy Giuliani’s base of support, and to do it in the lowest-budget way possible: on the internet, and without a paper-trail back to McCain who had to maintain the moral highground that would be consistent with his “Straight Talk Express” reputation. Sure enough, the McCain campaign denied any involvement with the Abrad2345 ads. It’s relevant to note that of all the candidates supposedly attacked by the unhinged Giuliani supporter in the ads, only the “attack” on McCain becomes an ironically clear-cut comparison between McCain the heroic POW and Giuliani, the draft dodger, in its tagline: “Rudy: No war hero.” In vying for the same set of national security Republicans, this was Giuliani’s one vulnerability versus McCain. Whether the ads were officially sanctioned by the skeletal McCain campaign, or the work of rogue elements in his organization, they were effective nonetheless.
Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter who authored the videos. Some have plausibly argued that they were the work of left-wing agitators just stirring up the Republican pot. The relevant point is that the Giuliani campaign completely dismissed them. At the same time, while every other primary candidate was developing an aggressive online component to their campaign, the Giuliani team floundered. We did not have an official MySpace page until September, by which point Obama, Clinton and Romney had racked up tens of thousands of online “friends.” The Giuliani team didn’t feel the need to: Rudy was the presumptive front runner and was racking up a war chest built on big donors. The internet was for Ron Paul and his crazy minions. Right?
Wrong. As Giuliani found out two months ago, and Hillary is finding out now, it is your broad base of internet supporters who will sustain a campaign deep into the primaries. With individual contributions capped at $2,300 a person, it’s all those MySpace friends and YouTubers out there whose small donations have buoyed Obama, to say nothing of McCain, Huckabee, and yes, Ron Paul (even in the face of actual primary defeats).
By the time the Giuliani campaign hired a new team of media consultants in the early fall, its solution was to start posting clips from a young campaign volunteer on YouTube and MySpace. The guy in question, a likable enough junior staffer named Dan Meyers, was what you might have expected for a young Republican: Clean cut, shirt and tie, and all the charisma of burnt melba toast. With no humor, production value or edge of any kind, these YouTube clips were doomed. In short, when the satirical anti-Giuliani videos are averaging ten times as many hits as the official videos, that does not bode well for your online strategy.
By September, McCain had retooled his campaign team, started posting effective campaign videos that reminded voters of his war record and his support of the Iraq War surge. A similar strategy worked for Huckabee, who ultimately shot to the lead in the Iowa caucases after a hilariously effective YouTube clip of himself with Chuck Norris. The difference is that Huckabee siphoned votes off of Romney, while McCain succeeded at the expense of Giuliani. And now we see McCain has learned another lesson: Unlike the stuffy Dan Meyer videos, McCain has his pretty, perky daughter Meghan and her two gal pals Shannon and Heather YouTubing their campain. Who wouldn’t want to watch them?
Did a handful of satirical YouTube videos sink the Giuliani campaign? No. Giuliani and a handful of his own advisors sunk the campaign with their myopic vision of their own inevitability. And that’s a lesson that Hillary is learning now.