It was the question everyone was asking… How did Republican U.S. Congressman Jim Gerlach survive the 2006 Republican massacre?
It was a fair question. Gerlach had barely won his two previous elections, squeaking by with little more than 1,000 votes. His seat – Pennsylvania’s 6th Congressional District – encompassed Philadelphia’s increasingly-Democratic suburbs. And not only did the Republican candidates for U.S. Senate and Governor run behind by double digits in his district, but then- President Bush’s approval rating barely scratched 30 percent.
Democrats were certainly pleased when Gerlach’s 2004 opponent, Lois Murphy, decided to run again. They figured that Murphy, a proven fund-raiser who nearly defeated Gerlach in a year that Bush won re-election, would certainly pull off a victory at a time when Republican numbers in Pennsylvania were in the tank.
Political experts initially ranked Jim Gerlach as the third most vulnerable House incumbent. He later rose to number one, and most pundits gave Jim Gerlach little chance of winning reelection.
But on Election Day, as five incumbent members of Congress went down in defeat in Pennsylvania – the most of any state in the nation – Gerlach did the unthinkable. He won by his largest margin to date, despite being outspent by almost $1 million.
So how did he do it?
It’s still about the candidates. The main reason why Jim Gerlach won re-election is simple: voters liked him better. This may sound obvious, but too often, today’s campaigns focus only on issues, strategies and tactics -- ignoring the long-term brand image of a candidate.
Fortunately, through years of representation, Jim Gerlach had developed a reputation as independent, compassionate and likeable. On Election Day, his branding superseded that of his party.
Define your opponent early. For years, many strategists have believed that they shouldn’t go negative against a lesser-known opponent. The strategy could backfire by ultimately giving the candidate free name identification. And surely no one would vote for someone they know nothing about.
Jim Gerlach’s campaign didn’t make this mistake. Six months before the election, Gerlach began positioning Lois Murphy as a tax-raising, negative-campaigning liberal whose beliefs were far outside the mainstream of the district. And the campaign never relented on the message.
There’s a right way to respond to negative attacks. When an opponent hits, the candidate’s first instinct is to hit back even harder. This creates a cycle of ads that generally works to the benefit of the challenger, not the incumbent.
Instead, Gerlach responded personally to many of Lois Murphy’s negative attacks. He was straightforward in the ads, making clear that the attacks were fabrications. He provided proof, vote-by-vote. The ads respected the voters’ intelligence and positioned Lois Murphy as less-than-trustworthy.
Positive ads can work. Many in the campaign-consulting world believe candidates cannot move numbers with positive ads. One thing we have seen in the Gerlach race – and a number of other of campaigns, such as U.S. Sen. David Vitter’s historic 2004 win in Louisiana – is that positive ads not only move numbers, they win elections.
We’ll be the first to concede that a powerful positive ad is much more difficult to pull off than an earth-shattering negative ad. But when properly created and produced, a positive ad can be more effective than a negative commercial in grabbing the voter’s attention and impacting their decision on Election Day.
Jim Gerlach’s final commercial featured him in a bright orange sweater, talking to the camera. He spoke sincerely about the Iraq war, and how he personally traveled to the country – not once, but twice. The commercial was anything but slick. But it was something that stood out in the final barrage of attack ads on the airwaves because it was real.
And in a race as difficult as this one, it made the difference.