Are Republican Ads That Attack Obama and Pelosi Effective?

by Stuart Rothenberg May 15, 2008 · 12:05 AM EDT

Hours after the results were tallied in Louisiana’s 6th district special election, both parties issued assessments about the efficacy of GOP ads linking the winner, Don Cazayoux (D), to presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

Democrats proclaimed the strategy a failure, while the National Republican Congressional Committee disagreed, asserting that its ads cut Cazayoux’s lead and made the May 3 race closer than it would have been. Republicans blamed their own nominee, Woody Jenkins, for the defeat.

Did the ads redefine Cazayoux and move voters away from him? Regardless of the results, was the strategy a reasonable one? And even if the strategy wasn’t completely effective in Louisiana, could it work down the road?

The district, which includes Baton Rouge and surrounding parishes, gave President Bush 59 percent in 2004. It is about one-third black, and it is widely regarded as Republican-leaning.

After each candidate won in the April 5 runoffs, Jenkins began the special election trailing Cazayoux.

An April 7 Club for Growth poll conducted by Basswood Research found the Democrat leading 46 percent to 38 percent. An April 16-17 NRCC poll conducted by Ayres, McHenry & Associates showed an almost identical situation, with Cazayoux leading 47 percent to 40 percent (48 percent to 41 percent when leaners were included).

The problem for the NRCC was that its survey found Cazayoux with solid 45 percent favorable and 24 percent unfavorable ratings among whites, while Jenkins’ 49 percent favorable and 37 percent unfavorable ratings among whites were much worse.

The NRCC independent expenditure effort ran three different ads in the district, all produced by OnMessage Inc., the consultants for Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R), trying to drive up Cazayoux’s negatives by using issues, and personalities, designed to polarize the race along more traditional partisan lines.

The first spot branded Cazayoux as a tax raiser (calling him Don Tax You, playing off the pronunciation of his last name), while the next two ads sought to link him in voters’ minds with Obama and Pelosi. Both ads used photographs of the two Democrats, with one ad explicit in asking voters to see the special election as a referendum on Obama and Pelosi.

A second NRCC brushfire poll was conducted April 23-24, almost a week after the “Tax You” ad began airing. It showed Cazayoux’s unfavorable rating among white voters had increased by 6 points, going from 24 percent to 30 percent. The NRCC’s message seemed to be working, and Jenkins at that point trailed Cazayoux on the ballot test by only 3 points, 44 percent to 41 percent (including leaners).

The problem for Republicans was that while Jenkins’ unfavorable rating among whites had improved, one-third of whites who said they were very likely to vote in the special election still had an unfavorable opinion of him.

That’s when, with little prospect of improving Jenkins’ reputation (especially in light of Democratic attacks on his integrity), the NRCC tried to make the special election about Obama and Pelosi. Republicans had little choice, even though Jenkins’ high negatives limited the chances of any GOP strategy working.

If the NRCC’s April 23-24 survey was accurate, and I certainly have no reason to doubt it, then there isn’t much hard evidence that the ads linking Cazayoux to Obama and Pelosi worked. After all, Cazayoux’s 3-point margin of victory was identical with the NRCC’s second survey. That’s the good news for the Democrats.

Of course, Republicans have been trying the same strategy in the Mississippi 1st district special election, and we will soon know whether they have any better results with it in that race. But even if they don’t, the danger for Democrats is that when Obama is the Democrats’ official nominee, he will be regarded as the leader of his party, defining what it means to be a Democrat.

Right now, being a Democrat still means that you aren’t responsible for Iraq or the economy. It means that you aren’t George W. Bush. It means that you represent a change in direction. But if and when Obama starts to be identified with certain policies, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, as well as Democratic candidates running in largely Republican and conservative districts, could have considerable problems.

The NRCC’s April 16-17 survey found Obama’s personal ratings among white voters in Louisiana’s 6th district at a horrendous 23 percent favorable and 65 percent unfavorable. Both the Club for Growth and NRCC’s surveys found Pelosi’s unfavorable rating twice her favorable rating among all voters in the district, and the NRCC survey found her ratings among white voters at 21 percent favorable and 57 percent unfavorable.

I’ll admit that I was skeptical that many people in Louisiana’s 6th district even knew who Pelosi was. But the two sets of poll numbers can’t be ignored, and it’s now easy to understand why Republican strategists believe that she is becoming a polarizing figure and think that they will be able to use her as a punching bag in the fall and beyond.

Democratic incumbents running for reelection in 2008 (and after), won’t automatically be tossed out of Republican districts because Obama is leading his party (or the nation). Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) and former Reps. Anne Northup (R-Ky.) and Jim Leach (R-Iowa) survived Bill Clinton’s victories, and Reps. Gene Taylor (D-Miss.) and Dennis Moore (D-Kan.) have been re-elected in GOP years.

But it isn’t even debatable that Obama and Pelosi have the potential to hurt Democrats running for Congress in Republican districts in 2008, and even more so in 2010 if Obama wins the White House and Democrats turn the country in a decidedly more liberal direction.

If that happens, the GOP strategy will look prescient and incredibly astute, no matter its limited effect in Louisiana’s 6th district last week. Remember, Northup and Leach didn’t lose in 2006 because of what they did. They lost because of their party and their party’s leadership.