Some politicians seem to relish the trail and draw real energy from it — President Obama comes to mind. Others, like Mitt Romney, seem happiest when they’re behind a desk poring over a ream of paper with their reading glasses on. In rare cases, like former President Bill Clinton, true enjoyment comes from both.
When I met San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, I got the sense he was a politician in the Romney mold. In other words, the Republican, who was on the city council before winning the mayoral special election last month, preferred the nuts-and-bolts of administration to the preening and baby kissing of the trail. This is a man, after all, who attended City Hall meetings as a kid — for fun.
That meant that Faulconer was exactly what San Diegans wanted after the Bob Filner fiasco. But making them see that was a different matter.
Faulconer’s previous campaign ads were “by the book.” In his earlier 30-second spots, shot three-quarters body and straight to camera, he frequently talked about pension reform. Occasionally they featured the obligatory walk-in-the-park cutaway.
Maybe Obama could have pulled it off, but it wasn’t working for Faulconer, who appeared uncomfortable and wooden. Granted, it’s no easy feat to make audiences warm to you in 30 seconds. But post-Filner, San Diegans didn’t want a politician, they wanted a person.
If that wasn’t enough reason to bin the old scripts, there were the numbers: In the special election, registered Republicans made up only 26 percent of the electorate, whereas Democrats rated 40 percent. For the Faulconer campaign, rallying the base and nibbling at the middle wouldn’t work.
He needed a different approach: Rising above party politics, which suited Faulconer quite well, and winning moderates at a personal level was the strategy. That’s where we came in.
We understood it wasn’t Faulconer’s issues that needed to be sold, it was Kevin himself. Through unscripted “interviews” and set against the day-to-day backdrops that made up his real life, we told an emotional story.
We wanted him to be distracted. If he was going to speak to camera, we made sure he spoke to someone just off-camera, and in his kitchen. If he was going to be walking somewhere, we wanted him to be walking and talking with someone he knew well. And we mounted cameras in his car and just drove around San Diego, talking.
The rote sound bites disappeared in the give-and-take of a real conversation. He was relaxed, engaging and authentic. And when we told Faulconer the cameras were turned off, that’s when he really came through.
The result? Our “docu-style” ads hit the city by storm. Audience dial tests soared over 70 among liberals, conservatives and independents, and helped take Faulconer from a nail-biting edge to a commanding lead. Ultimately, he won by some 10 points.
After the vote, a well-regarded Democratic operative in San Diego was overheard saying Faulconer’s ads were “the best we’ve ever seen from a Republican.” We’re glad the opposition took note.The voters certainly did.
Sam Dealey is managing principal at Monument Communications, a Washington, D.C.-based communications and production agency.