The Bush campaign finally unleashed the assault weapon of witty political commercials. I saw it coming since I caught my first glimpse of Senator Kerry windsurfing in the summer, and I wondered when the footage would be used. Now it’s here, and even if it doesn’t run regularly from now until the election, the damage may already have been done to Kerry’s hopes of being the first northeasterner elected president in more than four decades.
Textbooks and civics teachers are largely mistaken when discussing electoral dynamics. Seldom do real issue differences control presidential elections; rather, image and imagination are often the controlling forces. The American people tend to favor one candidate or another for a variety of reasons beyond policy: party ID, looks, values, character, background, charisma, leadership, ability to empathize, and, perhaps most of all this year, culture.
This election, like that of 2000, is a cultural battle framed by the electoral-college math that benefits rural states and country values. Both John Kerry and George W. Bush seem to understand that, though Kerry has some severe disadvantages on this front. Kerry understood it when he surrounded himself earlier this year with veterans and emphasized almost nothing in his pre-September campaign other than his record as a veteran and the fact that he was not George W. Bush. He has visited rural communities, been photographed riding a motorcycle, and found several occasions to be seen toting shotguns and speaking of his religious faith.
Kerry has been struggling to shed his elitist northeastern pedigree and appear to be an ordinary American. He has attempted to make himself acceptable to those NASCAR dads who were supposed to be a swing group this fall. He has attempted to strengthen his image among those “security moms” who, we are told, have been swinging to Bush’s column. He has attempted to become what Howard Dean claimed he wanted to be last fall, “the candidate of guys with the Confederate flags in their pickup trucks.” He took a smiling man with a southern drawl as his running mate, and his billionaire-heiress wife has been kept largely under wraps since the convention.
Images of Kerry windsurfing, however, undermine all of the senator’s attempts to prove himself the culturally conservative equal of George W. Bush. The election will be decided this year in culturally conservative areas such as Missouri, Ohio, North Carolina, and Wisconsin. Bush’s strength of conviction and rancher style plays well in these areas. John Kerry’s cultural liberalism has not.
The states that are the key to the electoral-college math contain a disproportionate share of Bubbas, men whom Bill Clinton with his Arkansas roots could reach, but who view John Kerry with suspicion. For Kerry to win this election, he needs to appeal beyond his base of support in urban areas and with unmarried women; he needs to do better with white males than Al Gore did in 2000 (Gore lost that demographic by double digits). That is becoming increasingly difficult. John Kerry’s real cultural roots have been exposed in the ad showing him flip-flopping in front of a yacht in the Atlantic.
The Kerry team recognized the ad’s danger immediately and rushed out a counter spot called “Juvenile.” That ad, whose only image is of the American flag with superimposed text, attempts to undermine the Bush ad by calling it a childish prank made during a time of great national crisis. Neither the word nor the windsurfing image show up in the Kerry ad, however, leaving the viewer wondering what it’s referring to. That the Kerry team couldn’t even hint at the Bush ad demonstrates its devastating power.
To the benefit of George W. Bush in this election, Bubba don’t windsurf.
–Gary L. Gregg is editor of Securing Democracy: Why We Have an Electoral College and Considering the Bush Presidency (with Mark Rozell). He is also NRO’s official Doctor of Electoral College.