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The Storm Breaks

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Well, the “fit’s hit the shan,” the storm has hit, whatever metaphor you’d like to use–the mayor’s race has taken the long-predicted turn to the negative, as detailed in today’s Times. Hahn’s come out with his first attack ads, while Villaraigosa and Hertzberg have responded with their own (credit Parke Skelton and John Shallman with the pre-packaged response ads; they knew it was coming). Though we haven’t seen the ads (we don’t have time to sit in front of the television to see them), the Times gives fairly detailed descriptions, and so we will review the strategies and histories behind the ads below.

Hahn: Sacramento Politicians
Hahn’s ad is weak for several reasons. First, Hahn’s gained such a reputation for negative ads that nobody is blindsided. Villaraigosa and Hertzberg have been speaking publicly about Hahn going negative for weeks. While Villaraigosa and Hertzberg have been bashing Hahn’s record mercilessly from Day One, by letting Hahn air the first attack ad, they can say that he “went negative first.” Nice touch, guys.
Second, it hits Hertzberg and Villaraigosa simultaneously. In our opinion, this is a tactical error, but understandable due to the dynamics of a three-person race. Hahn’s greatest threat is Hertzberg, and Hertzberg is a relative unknown. Had Hahn decided to bash only Hertzberg, the power of the ad is strengthened by Hertzberg’s low name recognition and identification. Since voters don’t know much about him, they’re more conducive to be swayed either positively or negatively. On one hand, hitting only Hertzberg helps ensure the Mayor makes the runoff, but on the other, going negative drives voters to Villaraigosa after the runoff by making the Mayor look bad. This is the difficult nature of a three-person race–Candidate A hits Candidate B, but Candidate C benefits the most–so Hahn decided to hit both his opponents. Furthermore, hitting Hertzberg and Villaraigosa simultaneously dilutes the negative message by diluting responsibility. Both took money from Enron, both were involved in the energy crisis, both wrote Vignali letters. Neither did it themselves? So who’s really responsible? Who do voters pin these things on? In our opinion, the feeling voters will have is less, “they’re both bad so I’ll vote for Hahn,” but is rather “they both did bad stuff, but is Hahn really better?”

Villaraigosa: Vignali Turned Upside-Down
Grainy images. Newspaper headlines alleging corruption. “Can we really trust this man?” Sounds like the same style as the Vignali ad in 2001, doesn’t it! Parke Skelton, criticized in 2001 for not responding to Hahn’s ads quickly enough, hits back with an ad that at least sounds almost exactly like the famed ad that helped cost Villaraigosa the mayoralty in 2001. His ad blasts the mayor for the corruption scandals that have plagued his administration, and constitutes the first “play-to-play” attack ads.

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But we think Skelton erred here as well, and took his critics’ advice too far. In his haste to answer Hahn’s ad, we think he forgot the dynamics of the three-man race. If Hertzberg were to make the runoff and Hahn were to miss it, doesn’t this only make Hahn voters tend to support Hertzberg and not Villaraigosa? Perhaps Skelton was blinded by his desire to stick it to Carrick for 2001, and decided to show him that two can play the dirty game of political innuendo–we can only speculate. On some level, even if Villaraigosa loses to Hertzberg in a hypothetical runoff, we think Skelton will have some consolation that Carrick got his just desserts.

Hertzberg: Bobzilla Crushes the Competition
John Shallman gets a gold star. It’s as simple as that. Hertzberg’s response ad shows Bobzilla, now returning for a third commercial, stepping on (!) a television playing the Hahn attack ad. Bobzilla says that Hahn’s attack ad is “wrong,” calls it another “Jim Hahn excuse,” and then focuses on breaking up LAUSD and not raising taxes. This ad works for two major reasons: first, it stays on message and keeps up with the themes that Hertzberg’s campaign has been promoting all along, and even sticks with the visual identity that his ads have created. Second, it respects the dynamics of the three-person race: it hits back at Hahn, but only to deflect criticism away from himself and re-focus the ad on his own agenda. It doesn’t alienate his own voters, but instead tries to re-inspire them.