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05.20.10

The Ad That Did Specter In

It’s the best political ad of the campaign to date—a 30-second spot that hung George Bush around Arlen Specter’s neck. Benjamin Sarlin talks to the adman who helped bring down a Senate legend.

The greatest negative ad of the 2010 campaign? Political junkies have been praising a TV spot from the Joe Sestak camp that tied primary opponent Arlen Specter to George W. Bush and Sarah Palin—and tightened the knot using Specter’s own words against him—as one of the most effective in recent memory. The Philadelphia Inquirer refers to it as simply " The Ad."

J.J. Balaban, principal consultant for The Campaign Group, the Philadelphia-based firm that produced the spot, is hesitant to call too much attention to it. Interviewed by The Daily Beast, he preferred to play up the campaign’s first media buy last month, a positive 60-second ad that highlighted Sestak’s record as a Navy Admiral, as the turning point in the race. And indeed, there is evidence in the polls for his argument—Sestak's numbers began trending upward in April and early May, while the Bush ad, entitled " The Switch,” landed less than two weeks before the election.

Click Below to Watch ‘The Switch’ Ad

Video screenshot

That said, there’s no denying the pride in his craft. "This one was one we had in our minds for some time," said Balaban, who credited his entire team for the months-long project. "It just came together at the right time."

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The ad’s main goal was to overcome what the Sestak campaign knew would be a daunting challenge: President Obama’s support for Specter’s campaign. The best line of attack, Sestak’s team reasoned, was to remind voters of Specter’s Republican past (Pennsylvania’s senior senator had switched parties last year, in hopes of surviving a tough conservative challenger.) Pairing Specter with the unpopular President Bush, who praises Specter in the ad as "the right man for the United States Senate," offered a jarring juxtaposition to Obama’s praise for the incumbent.

“I was fixated on putting Bush in,” Balaban said. “I think when Democrats hear George Bush's voice their skin crawls. My skin crawls—I want to pull an Elvis and shoot out the TV.”

Margaret Carlson: Why Specter Went Down Bush may have played a powerful part. But the ad’s standout performance came from Specter himself, who is shown twice telling reporters that "My change in party will enable me to be re-elected”—helping Sestak paint him as a shameless opportunist. According to Balaban, the idea for the ad dates back 2009, when Neil Oxman, one of the firm’s co-founders, decided that they needed a spot that featured Specter’s own voice. The mere sound of him speaking still held a “visceral” connection for Democrats, who were accustomed to hearing him as a leading player for the GOP.

It was a tactic that had been effective with Democratic voters in the past. Lynn Yeakel, Specter's Democratic opponent in 1992, won a crowded primary with an ad that featured Specter questioning Anita Hill during Clarence Thomas' confirmation hearings before narrowly losing in the general election.

For months the Sestak campaign stayed on the lookout for the ideal soundbite. At one point they considered using a 2004 clip of Arlen Specter describing his support from George W. Bush and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, whose socially conservative views frequently angered Democrats.

As the search continued, Oxman and fellow co-founder Doc Sweitzer came up with the ad’s brutal final line—“Arlen Specter switched parties to save one job...his"—while at lunch together, returning to the office to excitedly write it down for later use. With that frame set, the team settled on Specter’s “re-elected” quote as the most effective. Sweitzer added a final touch, proposing the use of an image of Palin and Specter together at the end, connecting him to the Democrats’ favorite new GOP enemy.

Specter blasted the ad, claiming his quote had been taken out of context. But reporters such as the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent quickly pointed out that longer videos of his interview did not significantly change its meaning; Specter had also offered similar comments in other media appearances, saying on Meet the Press that "It became apparent to me that my chances to be elected on the Republican ticket were bleak" in discussing his switch.

In the end, the ad worked. Sestak ended up defeating Specter 54% to 46%.

Benjamin Sarlin is Washington correspondent for The Daily Beast. He previously covered New York City politics for The New York Sun and has worked for talkingpointsmemo.com.