Last week’s release of the ad entitled “vulnerable” by the Commonwealth Future Political Action Committee supporting Charlie Baker is low-down dirty politics. At root, the ad suggests Martha Coakley facilitated child abuse in the Commonwealth via administrative support for the Department of Children and Families. The grey tones and sad playground visuals are all intended to leave voters thinking: Coakley does not stick up for kids. She made it easier for children to experience neglect and abuse. Stating the not so subliminal message makes evident how absurd the ad is. It’s rough. It’s ugly.
And it may be really effective.
Regardless of whether or not you like him, and ignoring a certain CNN moment, Karl Rove has been one of the most effective political campaign consultants of the modern era. And his go-to play is turning an opponent’s strength into a weakness. The “vulnerable” ad is best understood in this context.
Political science research on women and politics indicates that when women run they are just as likely to win – and this is a recent change. It also indicates that women are judged more effective on “compassion” issues like childcare, education, and social welfare issues than male candidates. In the aggregate, male candidates have the edge when the issues dominating the campaign season are things like budgeting and the defense.
So what is on the agenda come campaign season, the policy issues that are salient in voters’ minds, deferentially advantage male and female candidates. And, right now, the issues in Massachusetts have been of the “compassion” variety. Most voters are pleased with the job Deval Patrick has done andmajorities believe Massachusetts is headed in the right direction. As a result, Coakley is largely running on a “more of the same” agenda where she will fix the issues that need tweaking from the Patrick years. There has been substantial discussion of equal pay for equal work, for instance. This focus advantages Coakley.
So the Commonwealth Future PAC ad is classic Karl Rove strategy and the political science research indicates that it just might work. Voters believe female candidates are more effective on social welfare issues involving women and children. The PAC ad encourages voters to question this advantage in Coakley’s case. If she is judged wanting on protecting children, this is particular damning as these sorts of issues are precisely the ones voters expect and prefer a female candidate. Being judged deficient as a child advocate is thus doubly bad for a female candidate. Most voters will not buy the argument that Coakley enabled child abuse, and true blue Dems are incensed, but Baker only needs to change a few hearts and minds. And the best way to do this is to get some voters to question Coakley on what had been perceived as her strength – tough advocate for women and children.
The Coakley campaign has rightfully, if morbidly, lined up well known mothers of slain children in the Commonwealth to declare what a strong advocate she has been for their children and families. And Baker runs the risk of mobilizing more women to Coakley if they believe this an unfair, gendered attack. But that the conversation has even turned too, “how good is Coakley on protecting children?” is a Rovarian win for Team Baker. Those wins are ugly – just ask John Kerry (swift boat) or John McCain (mental health; race of daughter) – but they often work.