Thanks in part to YouTube, Election 2006 has seen a few local campaign ads hit the national spotlight. There’s the Michael J. Fox controversy, the Democrat called out on accidentally phoning a sex line — and most interestingly, the attack on Harold Ford Jr. from Tennessee.
The Republicans’ case against Ford goes back to a February 8, 2005 story in the Washington insider paper Roll Call. According to a gossip column, the politician attended a Super Bowl party hosted by Playboy magazine, complete with the trademark scantily-clad “bunnies.” Ford initially denied it but finally confessed Tuesday.
A few days earlier, the Republican National Committee brought out a “pro-Ford” TV ad, which late yesterday it pulled because it had “run its course.”
In the ad, a hunter remarks, “Ford’s right. I do have too many guns.” And a white woman squeals, “I met Harold at the Playboy party!” At the end of the spot she wags her hand near her cheek, pinkie and thumb extended, says “Harold, call me” and winks.
Ford is black, and his supporters have alleged the spot plays on fears of black-white miscegenation. On close consideration, however, that charge is illogical.
Some context for the race is necessary. Ford’s off-duty life is not beside the point — as he’d like us to believe — if a recent USA Today/Gallup poll is any indication. The organizations recently called registered voters from the state, asking why they picked the candidate they favored.
If one adds up all the reasons a Playboy event appearance could affect (“like him,” “honest/moral/has integrity,” “don’t like opponent,” “moral values issues” and “opponent dishonest/immoral/lacks character”), 27 percent of registered voters find candidates’ lifestyles important.
And in the ad, there’s more to the values charge than six seconds of a ditzy white woman. For example, a sleazy-looking guy at one point remarks, “so he took money from porn producers. I mean, who hasn’t?” Morality is a strong undercurrent to the argument, not an excuse to imply race mixing.
The commercial deals with some other issue positions as well (19 percent of registered voters care, according to USA Today/Gallup), from taxes to terrorists needing “their privacy.” In the end, the commercial simply hits on the topics most important to Tennesseans, mentioning twice but not quite dwelling on Ford’s party with the Playmates.
So, for purely political reasons, the Republicans had to go after Ford’s slip-up. But why use a white woman when the “racism!” charge is anything but uncommon during election season?
Well, look at the alternatives. They could have ditched the “mock pro-Ford ad” idea completely and done the standard voiceover. This would have avoided the racism charge, but it wouldn’t have been as effective at grabbing viewers’ attention. Both parties are in desperation mode, with the election approaching and both houses up for grabs, so foregoing creativity (and yes, some tackiness) isn’t an option.
Or, they could have used a black or Hispanic actress for the role. But a GOP ad with a minority Playboy floozy would be worse for PR than Mark Foley’s laptop was.
All of that said, let’s assume for a second that the ad really does target racists. Those Tennessee hicks’ll buy into it, right? Isn’t there a good case this was just cold, hard, and calculating?
If it was, it wasn’t a very accurate calculation. In 2004, the Pew Research Center conducted a poll on interracial dating. Southern whites did lag behind the rest of the nation in saying it’s okay — 59 percent to 78 percent of non-Southern whites — but a clear majority still approves. Another Pew Survey showed that 22 percent of Southerners have close relatives in interracial relationships. And about 17 percent of Tennesseans are black themselves, according to the 2004 Census (though some blacks too oppose interracial dating).
Appealing to a prejudice shared by less than half your target audience is just dumb. Such a move would likely lose more votes than it wins.
Finally, Ford probably did himself the most harm by lying. Tennessee residents care about morals, but they don’t require sainthood. Indeed, the place seems to have its fair share of Hooters restaurants.
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