Mo Elleithee, a senior strategist for the Kaine campaign, and Boyd Marcus, a senior political advisor for Allen's Senate bid, agreed Thursday that many of those ads were "total crap." Elleithee said the negative ads paid for by outside groups actually helped Kaine.
The two spoke candidly for more than an hour at a Virginia Public Access Project forum at George Mason University's Arlington campus. George Mason political scientist Mark Rozell moderated.
The pair — Elleithee is a longtime Democrat, and served as senior spokesman for Hillary Clinton's presidential bid in 2008; Marcus, a Republican consultant based in Richmond, served as former Gov. Jim Gilmore's chief of staff — talked a lot of inside baseball. And judging by the crowd's reaction, that's just what people wanted to hear.
Conservative groups like Crossroads GPS, Americans for Prosperity and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce began running negative ads against Tim Kaine in November 2011, Elleithee said. In the end, outside groups spent more than $30 million against Kaine, with nearly $11 million of that coming from Crossroads.
Conventional wisdom usually dictates that negative ads benefit campaigns more than positive ones. But Elleithee said against the backdrop of so many negative ads — and so many of them done poorly — Kaine was able to realize a rise in the polls with positive ads.
The outside spending helped Allen make up the difference in one-on-one fundraising against Kaine, Marcus said. But, he added, "a lot of what they spent money on wasn't targeted correctly, or we wouldn't have spent the money that way had we had that money."
"It was crap. It was total crap," Elleithee said. Marcus agreed.
"There were times I would see the ads coming at us from the other side, and I said, 'Thank you. There is no way that ad is going to convince once single voter to vote against Tim Kaine.' And I remember thinking, 'I bet the Allen folks feel the same way,' " Elleithee said.
Marcus added: "There were a couple of them that were decent ads, and followed the themes we were trying to play. But well over half, I'm sure, of the ads that were done independently weren't on our message, weren't on any message we were trying to convey, and weren't very well done."
Ads by the U.S. Chamber were "the worst," he said.
Kaine issued a challenge to Allen early on that the two agree to penalize themselves in the case outside groups, so-called SuperPACs, got involved. Allen refused. Elleithee said he was worried Allen would agree; he was counting on the onslaught of horrible ads to benefit Kaine.
The only other candidate in American political history who has had to sustain as much spending on negative advertising against him has been President Barack Obama, Elleithee said.
"We had the absolute best fundraising operation in the country in the Kaine campaign," he said. "We raised a record amount of money and from a record amount of people — over 50,000 individual donors by the end of the campaign. This was borne out of necessity. Because we saw early how much money was going to be spent against us."
Election Hinged on Turnout
Marcus said Allen ran a disciplined campaign and did not make any fundamental mistakes. The campaign was trying to push a "softer image" following Allen's 2006 debacle, where a racial slur cost him his Senate seat. That was made more difficult by the hard-edge ads put forth by outside groups.
The Allen camp got close enough that if Republicans had delivered Virginia for Romney, Allen would have won, Marcus said.
"This election was driven by the turnout, and our people did not get it right," he said.
Elleithee said several times that the Kaine and Obama campaigns worked "hand in hand" on get-out-the-vote efforts, which Republicans routinely underestimated, and relied on the Democratic Party of Virginia's established network.
That didn't happen on the Republican side of the fence, Marcus said. While Virginia saw a lot of GOP activity, "most of it was pretty worthless," he said.
"Essentially, the Romney campaign ran the whole ID and turnout operation through the (Republican National Committee's) 72-hour model that's been used for the last several years. And it doesn't work," Marcus said. "There are fundamental parts of it that don't work. It's based on this idea that you can parachute this group of people into anywhere, and give them quotas — how many phone calls they need to make, and how many doorknocks they need to make, and that will generate the turnout that you're looking for."
Elleithee and Marcus agreed that the best outside ads were done by the Republican and Democratic Senate campaign committees, which each seemed to have someone in charge who was at least familiar with what was going on in Virginia.
Marcus talked about how the Allen campaign saw fighting the sequestration bill, and linking that to saving Virginia jobs, as a winning message. Elleithee said voters were more concerned about partisan gridlock standing in the way of solving issues like unemployment and the deficit, which caused Kaine to push a heavy bipartisan message — including running an ad that spoke favorably of working with Obama and President George W. Bush.
"Both sides knew that the need to project this bipartisan aura was important," Elleithee said. "Voters just believed our messaging more at the end of the day."
The two agreed that Virginia has become a state where successful candidates have to win suburbs — making places like Fairfax, Prince William, Loudoun and Chesterfield counties, along with Virginia Beach and Chesapeake all the more important.
Rozell said afterward he hoped to make such candid post-election discussion an annual event.