In Campaign Ads, A Fine Line Between Stupid and Clever

Joni Ernst is a fascinating political candidate not only because she’s spent most of the general election campaign denying her own record and past utterances. More interesting for those who don’t really give a damn about her stands for Personhood or against Agenda 21 is that her entire candidacy is based on a series of political ads that walk (to use the important distinction made in the film This Is Spinal Tap) the fine line between stupid and clever.

The great cynic Mark Liebovich meditated a fair amount on Our Joni in a piece entitled “The Bumpkinification of the Midterm Elections.”

Joni Ernst, the Iowa state senator and Iraq War veteran, was standing in a barn in a purple flannel shirt and an unzipped vest. Beside her, various swine burrowed in the hog lot; two small pigs spooned; there was copious squealing. When Ernst, who grew up on a farm castrating hogs, opened her mouth to speak, she drew the inevitable connection between her upbringing and her current role as a Republican candidate for the United States Senate. “When I get to Washington, I’ll know how to cut pork,” Ernst said, smiling. Title cards reinforced her credentials. (“Joni Ernst: Mother. Soldier. Conservative.”) “I’m Joni Ernst, and I approve this message because Washington is full of big spenders. Let’s make ‘em squeal.”

The 30-second spot, titled “Squeal,” was part of a trilogy of ads for the candidate released earlier this year. In another, Ernst, enrobed in a biker jacket, rides a Harley-Davidson to a gun range. (“Joni Ernst: Set Sights on Obamacare”). In a third, titled “Biscuits,” the camera focuses on a man’s hands as they add butter to flour and use molds to cut circles. “When I was working fast food, I learned the key to a great biscuit is lots of fat,” Ernst tells the camera. “Problem is, Washington thinks the same thing about our budget.”

Now such ads are clever insofar as they link biography to agenda (however vaguely) in a mildly humorous–and more importantly memorable–way. And of course they are deeply stupid, because (just to cite the most obvious thing) working on a farm or riding Harleys or packing heat or baking biscuits has about as much relevance to the decisions being made (or evaded) in Washington as hog-calling has to high oratory. In Ernst’s case, the ads are doubly stupid because she’s not going to be casting votes based on her own homespun farm-bred judgment, but will instead do whatever Mitch McConnell and/or the right-wing activists of Iowa tell her to do.

But still, there’s evidence these ads were responsible for lifting Ernst to a relatively easy primary victory, and have helped make the general election the “dumbest Senate race in America.”

Liebovich thinks there’s a certain shadow-show quality to campaigns waged on such low ground:

Candidates themselves don’t deserve all the blame for their bumpkinizing. Much of that rests with the blizzards of money being blown from wealthy donors and super PACs to a growing oligarchy of media consultants, who typically live on the coasts and work for multiple candidates at once. In a D.C. twist, those bumpkins we see on our screens are often not even real bumpkins so much as some rich guy’s idea of what a bumpkin should be. One telltale signal is how familiar the props are — the livestock, the guns, the motorcycles, the dogs and, of course, the flannel. An ad for Rob Maness, a Louisiana Republican running for the Senate, features a trifecta: a gun, an airboat and an alligator.

Unless you’re in one of the partisan or ideological or interest groups one of these aggressively stupid candidates actually serves, you have to hope they achieve overkill and self-destruct. After all, four years ago Meg Whitman did just that with ads that weren’t half as droolingly mindless as those deployed by Joni Ernst. It almost makes you wonder if Republicans are waging their very own stealth “war on women” as represented by their own candidates.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.