Columns » Jay Barth

Barth: Ross needs to go for the heart

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  • Mike Ross

In recent years, neuroscience has entered the discipline of political science, providing us new insights into what is going on inside citizens' brains as they ponder politics. Among other things, that research has provided clear evidence of what those of us who have been around politics for a long time know well — emotions are more powerful than rationality in molding political attitudes. While the head matters in guiding voting decisions, the heart typically matters even more. An inability to nudge the passions of Arkansas voters helps to explain the quandary facing Democratic gubernatorial nominee Mike Ross as the campaign for governor enters the stretch run.

When the 2014 election season began, most expected that Ross would lead the Democratic ticket, running a few points ahead of U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor. Thus, if Pryor could keep his race against Congressman Tom Cotton close, Ross was well positioned to edge former Congressman Asa Hutchinson (perceived as the weaker GOP candidate and less able to take full advantage of a pro-GOP nationalization of the race). Instead, in polling across the last several months, Ross has run several points behind Pryor, with the senator surprising national and state political observers by staying even with the deeply ideological Cotton; in contrast, Ross has consistently trailed Hutchinson by a handful of points.

Ross has run a steady campaign, consistently besting Hutchinson in fundraising and making no identifiable mistakes. Moreover, Ross has made a clear, logical argument for his candidacy as a continuation of the pragmatic progressivism that has made Mike Beebe the most popular governor in America across his nearly eight years in office. That overarching theme has been fleshed out by his articulation of stances on specific issues that are thoroughly popular with voters who decide Arkansas electoral outcomes: unwaveringly supporting the private option, advocating an increase in the state minimum wage, prioritizing an investment in universally accessible pre-kindergarten education and presenting a plan for tax cuts that will continue to make the Arkansas tax code marginally more progressive. In terms of making a rational argument for his candidacy, Ross has done everything right.

The problem: While the "head" has been present in abundance, the "heart" has been lacking from Ross campaign communications to date. In dramatic contrast with the Beebe 2006 campaign's emotionally potent advertisements (featuring his rise from a tar-paper shack and the linkage of his waitress mom's working life to the minimum wage), it is difficult to recapture any moment from an advertisement run by the Ross campaign (or any of the groups advertising on his behalf) to date. The absence of emotional resonance in the ads helps to explain why the Ross campaign lags no matter how many things it has done correctly. As Washington Post political writer Chris Cillizza put it recently: "In an age in which political ads never really stop and fast-forwarding through commercials is all the rage, making commercials that stand out is the coin of the realm."

The cacophony created by the U.S. Senate race has created a challenge for any other candidate on the ballot in getting their message across on television. Because Ross is both less known statewide and is a Democrat in a time when generic Republicans are advantaged in Arkansas, it's a particular problem for him. Still, several issues that have been a focus of the Ross campaign in recent weeks — domestic violence, most obviously — present opportunities for the sort of emotionally impactful advertising that could break through the campaign clutter.

With the Senate race clogging the airwaves for the remainder of the campaign, the Ross team will also have to seek out other avenues for communication with voters. Fortunately for him, there is more than one way to skin the emotional cat during a campaign. As someone who saw the potency of an emotional-laden ad in the closing days of my own campaign a few years back, radio advertising — comparatively inexpensive to produce and easier to target toward demographic subgroups of voters — may be one answer to Ross' communications quandary. Viral web advertising and direct mail provide other outlets for more cheaply communicating with targeted groups of voters. Often those more targeted communications can speak to subgroups of voters in a way that emotionally resonates.

With his Republican opponent apparently maxed out short of a majority based on polling across the months, Mike Ross maintains a path to the governorship. With just over 80 days left, the key is for him to add emotional artistry to the technical merit of his candidacy.

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