Looking Back at My 2016 Senate Race Predictions
Last April, I made some predictions about Louisiana's 2016 Senate Race and the types of ads we would see. Some of these came true, some of them didn't, and some of them were fulfilled in unexpected ways.
Presidential themes - Along with a senator, we elect a new president this year, and voters seem to believe the stakes are high. Expect themes, political ideas, and even specific phrases in most Senate ads to be a memetic repetition of what presidential nominees' campaigns play nationally, with a custom-tailored nod to Louisiana people and places to keep it credible. And, of course, rhetoric and rancor will rise to a boiling point as they do every four years.
Rhetoric: check. Rancor: double check. Some might say these rose to record highs this year, but really the tide seems to come in every time a president hits a term limit.
Central tenets of the major presidential candidates' campaigns were indeed repeated in the Senate race. More than one Republican candidate evoked Trump's "drain the swamp" phrase, and themes of populism and economic frustration took the forefront for both runoff candidates' ads, with Democratic candidate Foster Campbell decrying a system "rigged" by the rich and powerful and Republican candidate John Neely Kennedy's not-so-subtle declaration that Obamacare "sucks." (Disclaimer: Foster Campbell for U.S. Senate was a client of We Met In The Air during the campaign)
After the primary, this became especially important since the presidental race had already been decided; both candidates vowed to support President Trump to one degree or another, and the President-elect, unsurprisingly, took sides.
National security focus - With the perception of elevated terrorism threats worldwide, Senate candidates will be sure to burnish their national security chops. Republicans will lean more toward border security and immigration constraints, while Democrats will push public safety credentials and law enforcement support. With the right targeting, either approach can be very effective.
Interestingly, this one didn't really pan out. Focus on national security during the primary was brief and served mainly as a point of contention among Republican candidates - Kennedy produced an ad attacking Charles Boustany on what he asserted were questionable House votes and political acquaintances - but the topic wasn't a memorable touchstone during debates or runoff advertising.
Expect a standout - Intra-party oriented advertising denigrating one candidate to benefit another will probably be tamer in this race than it was among Republicans before last year's gubernatorial primary, although things are sure to ramp up if and when the field narrows. Campaign teams will be looking for an opportunity to craft and release an election-defining, media-transfixing ad like The Choice, although the conditions required for a coup like that mean it will probably happen only once, even in this broad field.
It seems like my focus was on the potential for infighting among Republican candidates, but the Democratic camp provided just as much spectacle, if not more, during the primary.
Kennedy applied indirect heat to Boustany with allusions to some seedy associations referenced in Ethan Cohen's Murder in the Bayou. Caroline Fayard concocted a widely discredited link between Foster Campbell and white supremacist David Duke (a much-covered candidate who ultimately amounted to a footnote), while fellow Democrat Campbell attacked Fayard for her history of cross-party political donations and reluctance to pursue legal remedy from oil companies for damage to Louisiana's coast.
There weren't any hallmark ads to speak of. What came closest - the most talked-about ad of the relatively low-key cycle - wasn't an attack ad at all. In his typical lilting affect, John Kennedy intones "I believe love is the answer, but you ought to own a handgun just in case." The ad was circulated widely and incredulously by national media, but Kennedy's emphasis throughout his campaign on "I believe" statements ultimately played well in a cycle driven by, well, beliefs.
Most of it will fizzle - Speaking specifically now to digital, I'm sad to predict it's mostly going to be boring and ineffective. As with most political innovations, Louisiana is slow to recognize the power of a competent digital platform; candidates are just now grasping the necessity of a well-executed website. Every campaign will run social media accounts because it's easy and accessible. But the campaign that understands complicated or unorthodox platforms and embraces digital targeting, GOTV, and cyclical list building will have a great advantage.
True enough, digital-specific advertisement offerings were virtually nonexistent during the primary and were sparse, albeit more visible, during the runoff. Campbell's campaign ran search, video, and display ads to propagate his message and drive GOTV, while Kennedy's digital support appeared to come from the national GOP.
The remarkable digital story of the cycle was Foster Campbell's social media surge; his candidacy drew interest from donors nationwide that were let down by the presidential election results and searching for a new cause.
Louisiana's three-year slog of heavy political campaign cycles is now behind us, but with a 300 million dollar deficit looming and many other political battlegrounds at stake, don't expect much of a reprieve from ads, whether outrageous, moving, or ridiculous.