The Democracy Lab

If the 2004 presidential race taught Democrats any lesson, it's that all the policy pronouncements in the world, even if delivered by a decorated veteran, are no match for a relentless barrage of early negative ads that poison the well of public opinion and plant false information in the minds of voters. That Republican strategy worked in 2004. Now, as Democrats are busy trying to buff their national-security credentials inside Washington, conservative activists are rolling it out again in the swing states.

During two weeks in late February, Minnesota was bombarded by a series of misleading advertisements about the Iraq War sponsored by the Progress for America Voter Fund, a conservative “527” committee founded in 2001. In 2004, the group became known for two ads. The first, “Finish It,” a pro-war ad, morphed an image of John Kerry's face into the faces of a group of masked, armed terrorists and asked, “Would You Trust Kerry?” It ran in only two states, but received widespread media attention before being condemned as the Willie Horton ad of 2004. “Ashley's Story” was the soft-focus alternative. Aired in nine swing states in a $14 million buy in the waning days of the campaign, the spot showed Bush hugging 12-year-old Ashley Faulkner, whose mother was killed on September 11, and quoted her saying, “He's the most powerful man in the world, and all he wants to do is make sure I'm safe, that I'm OK.” The spot was described as one of the most influential of the campaign; all told Progress for America spent $38 million on the election.

The new ads feature images of the smoking World Trade Center, as well as the bombings in London in 2005 and Madrid in 2004. Soldiers and parents narrate the spots, arguing for the importance of staying in Iraq. The ads strongly suggest that the fight in Iraq is against al-Qaeda, in retaliation for the group's alliance with Saddam Hussein -- an affiliation that has been repeatedly shown to be nothing more than the fervid imaginings of the neoconsevative mind. “We fight because our county and our allies have been attacked,” Marcellus Wilks, a staff sergeant in the Army, says in one. The ads, which do not mention any specific candidate, slam the media and those who would pull out of Iraq as being weak on terrorism and suggest that bringing the troops home would take the pressure off al-Qaeda and thus bring the war home, too. As Minneapolis Star Tribune columnist Nick Coleman warned in mid-February: “Fellow Americans, the Swift Boating of Iraq has begun.”

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Such ads couldn't have been better scripted to appeal to the demographic that swung the election of 2004 in Bush's direction: white, married women.

Democrats often think that being strong on national security and appealing to female voters are two separate tasks. This line of reasoning contends that candidates appeal to women voters with the choice issue. This idea, however, is mistaken: As Republicans and some Democratic campaign professionals know, women's concerns are much broader than that.

Even among the unmarried women who are the Democrats' most loyal constituency -- they voted 62 to 37 percent for Kerry in 2004 -- choice is not a major element in bringing women to the polls, as Anna Greenberg, a pollster for Women's Voices, Women Vote, has explained. This may change as abortion access is increasingly threatened, but Greenberg's January 2006 survey found that the top national issue unmarried women are concerned about is the war in Iraq -- close to three-quarters believed it was not worth the cost -- while the biggest local issues were education and health care.

The problem for Democrats is that unmarried women are much less likely to vote than are married women. In 2004, 59 percent of unmarried women voted -- even with a major push to bring single women to the polls -- compared with 71 percent of married women. Additionally, there is a considerable drop-off in the voting of unmarried women in midterm elections. That makes the votes of married women, who drop off in smaller numbers, even more important in off-year contests.

Since about 1980, women have voted Democratic in larger numbers than men, but a mix of cultural worries, world events, and gop strategy has shrunk the gender gap since 1994. By 2004, actual mothers voted against the so-called “mommy party” and for Republicans, for values and security reasons. White, married women voted 61 to 38 percent for Bush, and white, married women with children voted for him 65 to 34 percent, according to a national election poll conducted by Edison Media Research and Mitosky International.

In summer 2005, Celinda Lake's Lake Research Partners conducted a series of focus groups with women in Denver and Philadelphia, which found that white mothers had a positive view of current U.S. foreign policy. “Some, particularly mothers, express the view that if ‘we don't do it, who will' and that we need to stop terrorism overseas before they attack us at home,” noted a November 2005 write-up on those focus groups for The White House Project, a feminist group trying to elect a woman president. “I think of homeland security as being here in our homeland,” one focus group participant said. “I think of the war on terrorism as being out in Iraq trying to head off the terrorists before they get here.”

Despite the lack of evidence that Saddam Hussein or his fellow Baathists had anything to do with 9-11, that sounds uncannily like the message Progress for America's ads were trying to reinforce. The new ads brought up 9-11 and defined Iraq as “the frontline in the war on terror.” “If we weren't fighting Al Qaeda in Iraq, we'd be fighting them in America,” Major Chuck Larson of the U.S. Army Reserves said in one spot, echoing the concern of Lake's focus group participants. Women may be particularly vulnerable to this message because, as Ellen Goodman has reported inThe Boston Globe, they are much more likely than men to believe that Saddam Hussein was connected to 9-11. Forty percent of the population was under this misimpression in 2004, with 51 percent of women believing so, compared to 29 percent of men.

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In Minnesota, the ads are only the beginning. “They are going to pull every trick out of the bag to incite the public and put fear into the public on an issue that is very important,” says Democratic Farmer Labor Party spokesman David Ruth. The state is facing several competitive congressional elections, a challenge to the incumbent Republican governor, and a contest for an open Senate seat pitting Republican Congressman Mark Kennedy against likely Democratic Farmer Labor Party nominee Amy Klobuchar, who leads the race so far.

Meanwhile, Larson is a name to remember, as he seems to be positioning himself as this year's John O'Neill (the swift-boat leader). A former Republican Iowa state senator who sits on a presidential advisory committee on drugs, he returned from a tour of duty in Iraq and in 2005 founded the group Families United for Our Troops and Their Mission, from which some of the ad's speakers are drawn. The group served as a conservative military counterweight to last summer's protests by anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan, and held a counter-protest to her Gold Star Families for Peace rally in Washington last September. Today, Families United has chapters in six states, including Minnesota, Michigan, and Iowa, and is planning to open new ones in Pennsylvania and Ohio, sites of important 2006 Senate races. Larson is a perfect vehicle though which to promote misinformation before Democrats get themselves mobilized.

Larson also plans to release a book in the spring, and Progress for America has coupled its test run of TV spots with election-style mailers and a Web site. The conservative national security message is being studied and refined based on its results. Once the well is poisoned, as we learned in 2004, it's very hard to un-poison it.