I live in CD 5 and I received two pieces of mail yesterday that told me everything I need to know about who is winning the race to replace Harry Mitchell. The Schweikert mailer was about Schweikert and the Jim Ward piece was about...Schweikert.
Jim Ward must have a poll that indicates he can't catch David Schweikert without going negative.
Now don't get me wrong. I'm not against a good hit piece--in fact, I've written quite a few of them--but writing a good hit piece isn't that easy--and when they go bad, they are very bad. Ward's piece is bad.
A bad hit piece is like watching a child who thinks he has learned to cuss. He has the words right, but it's so obvious that he doesn't understand what he's saying that instead of being shocked, everyone laughs.
Ward's hit piece is actually good for a lot of laughs and when I read it, I thought, "my gosh, this could be a clinic on how to write a bad hit piece..." Hmm, that's actually not a bad idea. So here's a copy of the Ward hit piece and below it are my notes and suggestions--and a bit of well deserved mocking. (here's the original version.)
1. The theme of the piece is that Jim Ward is an outsider and that Schweikert is a career politician. Then lead quote is from...an incumbent Congressman. Dude, that's awesome. I like John Shadegg, but he's been in Congress for 16 years. So Ward is telling me that he's an outsider by showing me that he's been endorsed Arizona's longest-serving Republican Congressman? Dude, pick a theme.
2. This is a GREAT picture of Schweikert. I should know, I took it. I could give you some technical details of why it's a great picture--I used actual film because it's better for four-color process and has a richer tone. I shot it at F2 in order to flatten the depth of field and make Schweikert stand out against the background--but that's not the point. The point is that if you only look at this hit piece for 30-seconds, you can't tell who it hits. Seriously. The picture of Schweikert is actually better than the picture of Ward. Most voters look at a piece while walking from the mail box to the trash can and a significant number of voters who don't take the time to actually read this piece will think that Schweikert wins the comparison. (Here's where Ward got the picture.)
But the piece isn't confusing just because the Schwiekert picture is better than the Ward picture, which brings me to point 3.
3. All the "NO" labels are under Ward. This is a classic mistake. Voters read mail and want to know who to vote FOR...sure, you are telling them who to vote against, but they don't understand that. So the piece actually reads like a "No on Ward" piece. The most logical reading of the first title for example "NO on Ward because he's a career politician."
4. Hit piece writers are often tempted to just make stuff up because it's hard for the target to rebut, but in the age of blogs, people actually go back to the "sources" that the candidate cites. Here, Ward continues his claim that the Wall Street Journal and Fox News "called him an anti-establishment outsider..." This claim is simply untrue. Read here for a complete debunking.
5. Fuzzy Math. Look, if you are going to use actual Math in a hit piece, it has to add up. But more importantly, this bullet mentions that Schweikert ran against Harry Mitchell in 2008. So what was Jim Ward doing in 2008? Living in San Francisco. That's right. Schweikert was living in CD 5 and running against Mitchell with Obama at the top of the ticket and Ward was living near Nancy Pelosi's district. Ward moved to Arizona to run for Congress and if you check out the documents, it looks like he hired his political consultant before he even registered to vote. So he should probably avoid references to what Schweikert was doing in 2008.
6. After you have set the stage by lying about yourself, you are now ready to lie about your opponent. But, again, you can't make stuff up that's OBVIOUSLY not true, or the readers will catch it. So these bullets list Schweikert's (rather impressive) resume and then claim he's a "20-Year Career Politician." The problem is that the list only includes 7 years of elected office.
7. Watch for passive voice. "Residential and commercial property taxes increased on his watch." Does this say that Schweikert raised taxes? Nope. In fact, Schweikert was the TREASURER during this period and had no authority to increase or decrease taxes. He simply collected the money. Nice try though.
8. Parallel Structure. I circled this set of points because they are the only ones that are right. Read the first word of each bullet...Repeal, Replace, Create. That's excellent. They are all verbs and have a great flow. Now read the rest of the bullets...the rest of them are like the bottom set "Opposes, Will Reduce, Supports." This may seem like a minor point, but it confuses the reader and muddles the message. That's critical when a piece gets less than a minute of reading time.
9. Look for pure fabrication. Ward cites the spending increases from 1991 to 1995. Huh? Schwiekert and I served together in the Legislature in the early 1990s when Symington was Governor. With the exception of the current meltdown, the last period of fiscal austerity was from 1991 to 1995. Schweikert was in House leadership during that period and was instrumental in keeping spending down. So don't cite the most conservative period in the last 25 years as an example of big spending.
I also like the next bullet in this section "increased Maricopa County budget..." Again, Schweikert was TREASURER he didn't vote on budgets.
10. Any lie that is worth saying is worth repeating--see point 4.
So why the panic? Why did Ward decide to go negative with such an amateur, hastily contrived piece--three factors: sobering poll numbers, limited cash on hand and high burn rate.
Sobering Poll Numbers.
I don't have a copy of the poll, but the results of Ward's internal polling are obvious. You don't see the other candidates mentioned in this piece and we are no longer seeing positive pieces about Ward. When an candidate targets one member of the field with a negative piece, it means that the target has a comfortable lead and the clock is ticking.
Limited Cash on Hand
The Republic reported that Schweikert's cash on hand is $434,000, while Ward comes in at $284,000 (contrast that to the millions he promised to spend when he moved here).
However, the numbers are actually even worse for Ward. Contributors often give more than the Primary Limit and that money has to be earmarked for the General Election, or returned if the candidate loses the primary. If you subtract out Ward's earmarked money, his cash on hand drops to about $190,000 while Schweikert's cash is still above $400,000.
Cash only counts if it touches voters instead of going to consultants. Ward spent $220,000 last quarter and has nothing to show for it but a few mailers and a lot of consulting fees. Those consultants are going to want to be paid in the second quarter too, so if you subtract a $50,000 a month burn rate from the $191,000 in cash available for the primary you get...enough money to do one hit piece and a few feel good mailers.
So that was his shot. The Hail Mary play comes short. The crowd goes wild. Game over.