McCain Ads That Didn’t Run

Most of John McCain’s television spots, going back to the primaries, were simply dreadful. Now, Fred Davis III, the “advertising whiz” behind these atrocious ads, is whining to TIME’s Michael Scherer that McCain wouldn’t let him run some particularly clever ones.

What if the McCain campaign had run ads using footage of Barack Obama dancing with Ellen DeGeneres to show his coziness with celebrity? Or followed up on its Paris Hilton ad with others featuring Donald Trump and Jessica Simpson? All of that was on the drawing board of Fred Davis III, the advertising whiz that John McCain has used for almost all of his campaign media and one of the most talented conservative political operatives in America. Oh yes, he also had an Internet ad up his sleeve that would attack Obama’s celebrity by associating him with Oprah. But in the end, he scotched that one. “We decided you don’t really fight Santa Claus or Oprah,” he says, “so we removed her.”

Indeed. The whole “celebrity” theme was idiotic. Whining that the opponent is popular and getting favorable press treatment is not exactly presidential. That’s doubly true if you’re also popular and known for good relations with the press.

“My favorite ad of the campaign was as simple as it could be,” Davis said. “And it started out something like, ‘Long before the world knew of John McCain or Barack Obama, one of them spent five years in a hellhole because he refused early release to honor his fellow prisoners, while the other one wouldn’t walk out of a church after 20 years of the guy spewing hatred towards America.’ And the last line was, ‘Character matters, especially when no one is listening.’ ” The ad never ran, however, because McCain ruled the topic of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the preacher of Obama’s Chicago church, out of bounds shortly after he locked up the Republican nomination.

That’s actually not a bad ad. Still, it’s probably something you’d rather have a sympathetic 527 group run rather than following it with “I’m John McCain and I approve this message.

One of his biggest struggles, Davis says, was to come up with negative spots against a historic, groundbreaking candidate without stepping on taboos. “One of the big hands that I felt was tied behind my back was [that] so many things — like [Obama’s record on] crime — you would logically do were perceived as ‘Oh, we can’t do that. That was playing the race card,’ ” he says, adding that the campaign created a whole series of crime attacks against Obama that were never aired. “Reverend Wright? ‘Oh, can’t do that; they’ll say we are playing the race card.’ [William] Ayers? For the longest time, ‘Oh, can’t do that. We’re playing the race card.’ ”

Davis says that concern about race played a major role in the entire aesthetic of McCain’s ads. The photographs of Obama that the ads used, for instance, which often showed Obama elongated and smiling, were carefully selected, he recalls. “We chose them with only one thing in mind, and that is to not make them bad pictures because bad pictures would be seen as racist,” Davis says. “How many shots in their ads did they use a John McCain [photo] looking decent and smiling?” He says the campaign also agonized over the music in the ads, paying special care not to play drum-heavy tracks that could be seen as an African tribal reference. “We were held to a totally different standard,” he says.

Nevertheless, the McCain campaign was unable to escape the charge that it was playing the race card. An Associated Press analysis called the campaign’s invocations of the once violent 1960s radical Ayers “racially tinged” because they evoked the word terrorist. McCain was also accused of playing on race for running an ad that highlighted Obama’s relationship with Franklin Raines, a former executive at Fannie Mae who is black. Says Davis: “I never saw anybody play the race card but the Obama campaign.”

Townhall’s Carol Platt Liebau writes, “It seems pretty obvious that John McCain was afraid of going down in history as the guy who prevented the first African-American major party nominee from being elected on account of what the Obama-adoring press would have inevitably described as ‘dirty tricks’ (even if they hadn’t been).  So he pulled his punches and lost.”

Well . . . no.  McCain ultimately ran a pretty tough campaign, going negative when he had to. But McCain’s tactical judgment was right here.  The Obama campaign was masterful, going back to the primary campaign against Hillary Clinton, at making any attack on their candidate “racist,” thus putting the opponent on the defensive.   That was going to be doubly effective against a Republican candidate, because the national press is predisposed to the idea that when Republicans talk about crime, social policy, religion, or pretty much anything else it’s actually a clever racist dog whistle.   That’s unfair but it’s also a fact that McCain had to live with.

FILED UNDER: 2008 Election, Race and Politics, Religion, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. odograph says:

    That is semi-interesting “inside baseball,” but I think it avoids the central issue of McCain’s campaign: He couldn’t run “toward the middle” with a Lieberman VP the way he wanted.

    Now that would have changed everything, if the Party had backed a centrist campaign.

  2. James Joyner says:

    Now that would have changed everything, if the Party had backed a centrist campaign.

    I’d have preferred Lieberman to Palin, certainly. He couldn’t have run a centrist campaign and won; he had to be something other than an older, grumpier alternative to Obama.

    What Lieberman or a comparable choice would have done, though, is to have allowed him to run as a grown up rather than as a faux populist.

    Ultimately, though, I think the financial crisis pretty much doomed any chance he had.

  3. sam says:

    The Obama campaign was masterful, going back to the primary campaign against Hillary Clinton, at making any attack on their candidate “racist,” thus putting the opponent on the defensive.

    But James, that’s not the whole story, or even a large part of the whole story, right? McCain ran a terrible, lurching campaign. He was outmaneuvered at almost every turn by Obama. If there was any constant in McCain’s campaign, it was to try to paint Obama as some wild-eyed radical who was a real threat to the Republic. But that got wrecked on the shoals of the debates where Obama came across–accurately–as a measured, thoughtful person. I think the louder the McCain campaign got about Obama’s “deficiencies,” the more that worked to Obama’s advantage. The gap between what the McCain campaign was saying and what folks were seeing was immense. And this led, in the end, to folks questioning McCain’s judgement (and all this aside from his impalining himself).

  4. odograph says:

    I’m thinking that with a centrist campaign the “fear the leftist” thing would have worked better.

    With a right-Palin platform he had to rely on a “character” campaign because most of the platform planks were out of the mainstream.

    I agree that the financial crisis pushed the “change” factor, but again centrist (“adult”) leadership would have been a better answer to that. The turn right made the “change” in McCain-Palin harder to argue.

  5. odograph says:

    I think the biggest story about the Obama side, in retrospect, was that everybody underestimated him. They perceived him to have arrive where he was on some kind of free ride. There was even this idea that coming up through Chicago politics was something done for him.

    I’m thinking maybe it was a proving ground. Maybe it was the hard scrum that his opponents hadn’t ever played.

  6. anjin-san says:

    The financial crisis was not an automatic win for Obama. McCain’s “fundamentals of the economy are strong” and his downright bizarre “suspend the campaign” ploy were entirely of his own doing.

    Obama’s contrasting steady performance as the crisis unfolded was a such a strong differentiator precisely because McCain became erratic as the heat was turned up. If McCain had looked strong in the face of a crisis, it might have been different.

    McCain devoted a lot of time to saying “I have been tested” but his poor performance in the face of an actual test undercut the argument.

  7. Floyd says:

    Hey!! Kool-Aid!!

  8. John425 says:

    McCain’s campaign sucked, to put it mildly. Only the addition of Palin prevented what would have been a landslide defeat. McCain acted like Kerry, waiting too long to respond to attacks and was always playing defense. Hopefully, we’ll see President-Elect Palin in 2012.

  9. Michael says:

    Hopefully, we’ll see President-Elect Palin in 2012.

    Dear God I hope we do, this country needs 8 years of a Democratic administration.

  10. PrestoPundit says:

    You’re living on another planet James ..

    “McCain ultimately ran a pretty tough campaign”

    It was weak, contradictory, and pathetic campaign, which failed to characterize Obama until the game was already over — the worst and weakest sort of campaign strategy.

    And note well — McCain’s best ads were Internet only, and were never broadcast. (E.g. the ones on Fannie Mae). Pathetic.

  11. c says:

    The McCain campaign’s need to avoid even the appearance of racism was not the reason he lost, and I don’t think that’s the point of the article.
    The point is that WAS one element of an unspoken advantage and it was racist to point it out. NOt that it won Obama the primary or the election, but it was useful and his campaign used it.
    Even Bill and Hillary Clinton, with their strong record of Civil Rights were called “racist” – by other Democrats.
    But now Obama can even associate with that racist Clinton- and even choose her for SOS.
    Some of his supporters are amazed to learn that the anti-Clinton-the-racist (and insider and warmonger and monster) venom of the primaries may have been just politics.
    There’s a good reason that Obama was named “Marketer of the Year” – as was noted in Advertising Age. What a narrative!