Splitting hairs

Manan Trivedi, who is challenging Rep. Jim Gerlach, tried a little humor.
Manan Trivedi, who is challenging Rep. Jim Gerlach, tried a little humor. (MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer)

Why do the campaigns sound so much alike?

Posted: October 28, 2012

WASHINGTON - For once, a political ad elicited a laugh, and not the kind of angry, dismissive laugh you give when someone insults your intelligence.

The 15-second spot that began airing last week opens with images of Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan, and Rep. Jim Gerlach, all Republicans, all blessed with full heads of hair fit for shampoo commercials.

"Good hair. Bad ideas," the ad begins - before rehashing the Democratic attack lines of the season: that Republicans are out to eviscerate Medicare while giving tax breaks to the rich.

Then up pops a smiling image of the bald Manan Trivedi, the Democrat trying to unseat Gerlach in a Chester County-based race. The ad concludes: "Less hair. More Medicare."

Putting aside whether you believe the Democratic line, or the Republican response that they're working to save Medicare while Democrats sit on the sidelines, the spot at least finds a clever way to make a point while adding a dose of self-deprecation (a quality that in itself may disqualify him from Congress).

But as original as the ad may be, its message is now painfully familiar. There are four potentially competitive congressional races around Philadelphia, but you would be hard-pressed to distinguish any of the Democrats from one another or tell apart the four Republicans.

Trivedi finds a fresh way to make his point but doesn't make a point that's new or different from anything else we have heard in our region or even nationally.

There are marginal distinctions - Trivedi, a doctor, talks a bit more about health care, while fellow Democrat Kathy Boockvar cites her teenage daughter when she stresses women's issues - but on the whole, you could take all the quotes from the candidates on both sides, shuffle them, throw them in the air and let them land at random on articles about the campaign, and none of those stories would change much.

The results are about what you would expect in football when the offense keeps trying the same thing and the defense knows exactly what's coming: The ball barely moves.

That's fine by Republicans, who hold the four local seats in play and are content to run out the clock.

If the elections were held today, odds are there would be no change in any of the Philadelphia region's congressional seats. Democrats had targeted four seats for upsets, but their attempts to tie incumbents to Ryan's plans on Medicare and taxes haven't produced the movement they hoped for, at least locally, and the candidates haven't had a Plan B.

To be fair, it's not just our candidates who have campaigned this way. When Democrats rolled out a series of ads from House races across the nation earlier this year, they all talked about the same themes. Only the ominous music and grainy photos changed.

There are some legitimate reasons behind the carbon-copy campaigns. Challengers have limited funding, giving them little choice but to adapt poll-tested, party-approved messages handed down from above, says Ross Baker, a Rutgers University political scientist.

"In a presidential year, they know that the principal message is going to be coming from the top of the ticket, so there really isn't a lot of incentive to innovate," he says.

Incumbents, meanwhile, are just looking for smooth sailing. "They don't want to rock the boat," Baker says.

This isn't new. Baker has reels of political ads from the 1980s where the same line is delivered over and over, with a different voice approving the message at the end.

Carl Golden, who was a message guru for Republican New Jersey Govs. Tom Kean and Christie Whitman, said the economy, and by extension, government's role, is such a big issue that everyone is focused on that topic. (Candidates in every race have taken the bold stand that they are in favor of jobs.)

Another political consultant pointed out that challengers get so little media attention that they have to make sure their few opportunities focus on ideas likely to make maximum impact.

Which all makes sense, but largely crushes hopes for spontaneity or original thinking as candidates vie for a seat in an institution generally lacking in both.

Golden, who made a career of managing political messages, points out the dangers of going off script. Just ask Todd Akin of Missouri or Richard Mourdock of Indiana how that worked out, he says.

On the other hand, there are campaigners such as Ed Rendell and Chris Christie, whose unfiltered personas and colorful candor helped fuel rises to prominence.

If more candidates showed sparks of originality, maybe our politics would become less cynical and stagnant.

They just have to let their hair down.

Contact Jonathan Tamari at jtamari@phillynews.com or follow on Twitter @JonathanTamari.

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