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Political Madmen

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LSU students take notes as media consultants from past presidential campaigns speak about their experiences with political advertising. Credit: Brianna Paciorka LSU students take notes as media consultants from past presidential campaigns speak about their experiences with political advertising. Credit: Brianna Paciorka
Media consultants from past presidential campaigns speak about their experiences with political advertising. Credit: Brianna Paciorka Media consultants from past presidential campaigns speak about their experiences with political advertising. Credit: Brianna Paciorka

By Andrea Gallo | LSU Student

Four "rock stars" of political consulting sat on a stage in the Holliday Forum of LSU's Journalism Building, traded war stories back to the presidential campaigns of Jimmy Carter, George W. Bush, Gerald Ford and Gary Hart, all the while drawing parallels to this year's election race.

They agreed during the "Political Mad Men" presentation Monday night that the primary rule of thumb is to have a candidate who is genuine and authentic and to give the audience the candidate's biography. Many political moments have become too scripted, and ads are losing creativity as pollsters become more central to campaign messages, they concurred. .

Moderator Bob Mann, director of the sponsoring Reilly Center for Media and Public Affairs at the Manship School of Mass Communication, bestowed the legend title upon the men – Gerald Rafshoon of Carter's 1976 and 1980 campaigns, Mark McKinnon of Bush's 2000 and 2004 campaigns, Doug Bailey of Ford's 1976 campaign and Ray Strother of Hart's 1984 and 1988 campaigns.

McKinnon recalled interviewing Bush for videos and asking him about the birth of his twins. While trying to describe it, Bush "mangled" his response, so he re-did it. Later in the editing room, McKinnon wanted to keep that segment much to the chagrin of his colleagues.

"I said, ‘It's genuine, it's funny, it's human… And by the way, by the time this thing is over, people are going to realize he's not the best orator in the world anyway,'" he laughed.

Rafshoon said once Carter was elected president, he started using a teleprompter and a script. Rafshoon said he suggested Carter return to a less scripted style of speaking.

"People just jumped all over me," he said. "People said if the President makes a mistake in a speech, the market will crash, the world will fall apart."

The lack of storytelling in Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's campaign has been his downfall, the quartet agreed.

"Is there anyone here who can tell me what Mitt Romney really, honestly believes in?" Bailey asked. "You can't get to be the president unless you can pass the simple test as to who you are."

This election is comparable to 2004, McKinnon said, when Bush's campaign made the focus the choice between Bush and Democrat John Kerry, as opposed to a referendum on Bush. But Rafshoon warned it could quickly turn into a flashback from 1980 and Carter's re-election bid against challenger Ronald Reagan.

Rafshoon said when his pollster called him to say Carter would lose by nine points because of the Iran hostage crisis. Carter had been ahead of Reagan going into the debates. Given the state of Iran and Libya, Obama could find himself in a similar predicament, Rafshoon said.

"With an incumbent president, it's not the advertising; it's not the campaign. He can lose because of events. I still worry about an October surprise...it could upset everything…It's not over till it's over."

But Bailey and Rafshoon were quick to point out that Reagan met the authenticity test and was a much more likable than Romney.

The discussion regularly was broken up with video presentation with ads the panelists had created.

While campaigns and political advertising have evolved throughout the years, Bailey said it's still critical for people who want to work in politics that they like and believe in the person for whom they are employed.

Strother said he once found a homeless man living in the basement of their Seattle campaign headquarters. They let him stay if he agreed to staple campaign signs. The man did so, then moved to organizing signs and eventually became the assistant campaign manager.

"A campaign is a vacuum," Strother laughed. "It'll suck you up."

"The great thing about politics is that the barriers for entry are pretty low," McKinnon said. "Find your passion…Once you get in the door, once you're in, if you're willing to work hard, that gets recognized and rewarded very quickly."

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