Among the biggest surprises so far this election cycle is how Bernie Sanders seized the zeitgeist and hijacked Hillary Clinton’s coronation. It took quite a while for those outside the Sanders bubble to grasp his staying power as a candidate. Winning New Hampshire by 22 points got everybody’s attention, but the week before Sanders got his big win, there was “America,” a gauzy montage of home-sweet-home Americana touting sixties-era idealism set to the Simon and Garfunkel song of the same name.
“As soon as we put it up, it was a sensation,” Tad Devine, Sanders’s chief strategist, told the Daily Beast. “A couple of million views in 48 hours and now it’s many more.” Google’s U.S. leader board for January ranked “America” the fifth-most-viewed YouTube ad, beating out car ads that cost millions to make, and all but one Super Bowl ad. “That was pretty good. We saw the impact,” says Devine.
The idea of using Simon and Garfunkel music had been kicked around for some time by his partners, Julian Mulvey and Mark Longabaugh, in the trio’s media consulting firm on Wisconsin Avenue in downtown Washington, D.C. They initially had in mind the Paul Simon song, “American Tune,” when Mulvey’s wife, Democratic pollster Margie Omero, suggested “America.”
That wasn’t an “aha” moment. They didn’t think the lyrics really worked with Sanders’s bio. “America” is about a young couple hitchhiking across America in 1964. Then in late November or early December, Devine can’t recall exactly when, he got a call from Sanders saying he was having lunch with Paul Simon. “He says he’s gonna be for me,” Sanders reported, and he mentions another song that Simon thinks fits him. Its lyrics were really not right for now, says Devine, but he won’t reveal the song because he’d like to use it later in the campaign.
On the campaign trail, a small crew from the aptly named Revolution Messaging follows Sanders everywhere, constantly filming him. There is so much stockpiled footage of the candidate that Devine hired a freelance editor, Yevette Torell, to cull through the mountain of it and narrow it down. “If we took that into a studio and had a professional editor go through it, we would run up quite a bill,” says Devine.
It’s hard to stand out in the crowded 60-second ad universe, but the Sanders campaign did it with “America,” and Devine in an email explains the choice of music that “not only appeals to the baby boomer generation, but to the children of boomers who heard it in their homes growing up. I think that particular song really transcends any generation gap and speaks to the common sense of nation that we as Americans all share. I hoped that the ‘America’ ad would give people a sense that Bernie’s campaign is about them and not just about him.”
The campaign’s “SELFIE” ad also caught the eye of voters and professionals alike. Over 5,000 individuals submitted SELFIE photos, some with Sanders, some with significant others. It took three days of someone sitting in a studio to painstakingly mount all the photos on a board so they could be turned into montages for TV and online ads that show the diversity of American voters with one face dissolving into another in rapid-fire images.
“The campaign is about these people,” says Devine. He grudgingly acknowledges one misfire, an online digital banner ad that the campaign pulled back in mid-December. It said Sanders raises money from people while Clinton raises money from Wall Street. “We said we wouldn’t run any negative ads, so we pulled it. It was the closest we’ve ever gotten to saying something about her, and it was in the most obscure place,” he says. “We’ve drawn a line. Bernie 2016, when he says I approve this ad, we haven’t mentioned her.”
Clinton complained to Sanders at a debate last month, “If you’ve got something to say, say it directly,” challenging him to find any instance of her changing her vote based on a donation.
Reminded of that, Devine said, “Insinuation is different from insertion.” He recalled that in Sanders’s first biographical ad, where he is described as a father, a grandfather, an honest leader,” Clinton backers complained they were “taking a shot at Hillary.”
With the support of African-American votes key in the South Carolina primary on Saturday, the Sanders campaign began airing an ad in the state featuring the daughter of Eric Garner, the Staten Island man who died in July 2014 after being placed in a chokehold by the police. Devine was “blown away” by Erica Garner’s op-ed in The Washington Post endorsing Sanders. He turned it into a long-form ad that has Erica Garner explaining to her 6-year-old daughter “what Mommy is, she is an activist,” as they walk in their neighborhood. “I was able to see my dad die on national TV,” she says. ‘I never want the world to forget what happened to my dad.” The original ad ran four minutes. When none of the networks would sell the campaign that much time, Devine cut it down to two minutes. It got 1.7 million hits, and 500,000 YouTube views.
With Sanders facing steeper odds going into South Carolina and the Super Tuesday states, the days when Sanders enjoyed primacy in the ad wars could be over. Clinton has Eric Garner’s mother endorsing her in an ad, and Morgan Freeman with his resonant “voice of God” narrating an ad about Clinton’s life story dubbed “All the Good.” Sanders came back with a Spike Lee ad urging voters to “Do the Right Thing.” Not many South Carolina voters took Lee’s signature advice, but win or lose the primary campaign, Sanders has certainly won the ad wars.