Why Did Elizabeth Dole’s Campaign Use the Atheist Attack Ads?

Remember a couple months ago when the North Carolina Senate race was in full swing? It was Republican incumbent Elizabeth Dole against Democratic challenger Kay Hagan.

To many outside NC, Hagan was a relatively unknown figure — that is, until Dole’s campaign put out a press release saying she was promoting atheist values and had attended a fundraiser at the home of atheists. They later ran a TV ad saying the same thing.

Hagan was a Sunday School teacher who attended a fundraiser typical of any political candidate. While it happened to be at the home of atheists, the fundraiser had nothing to do with atheism.

The attack ads were pathetic and eventually Hagan won the election. Were the two things related?

Marty Ryall, the campaign manager for Elizabeth Dole’s Senate reelection campaign, says they were not. He has a troubling piece at Politics Magazine where he discusses why the campaign used the ads and how they were not the reason Dole lost the race.

Many in the media, especially on the liberal side, were quick to point to the ad and claim it backfired, costing Dole the election. Nothing could be further from the truth. When a football team is trailing by 7 points and throws a “Hail Mary” on the last play of the game, they don’t lose because they failed to complete the play, they lose because they were down 7 points and time was running out.

There were several scripts and drafts that were discussed. But we still hoped to avoid using it, because we knew the risk of backlash was very high. With about eight days left in the campaign, we were down 6 points and underperforming the Republican presidential nominee by 4 points. We were tracking nightly and when respondents were asked what they had seen or heard about the campaign it was all about our lack of effectiveness and the amount of time spent in the state.

We were on a losing trajectory and we had to change the topic of discussion. The only option we had that could accomplish that was an ad on the Godless Americans PAC issue.

We had polled the issue in mid-September and found that it tested very well among the key groups that we needed to win. We needed to raise intensity among Republican voters, as well as shift the focus of Independents and conservative Democrats from our negatives to Kay Hagan in an unfavorable way. We needed something that had some shock value and would also generate an earned media component—and that was the “Godless” issue.

He also mentions that they never intended to make Hagan sound like she was saying “There is no God” in the ad… (They only played atheist Ellen Johnson‘s voice while a picture of Hagan was on the screen — How on earth would that be confusing?!):

The first draft of the “Godless” ad had a picture of Kay Hagan at the end with a graphic that read “What was she thinking?” and a voiceover that said “There is no God.” I objected to that because it looked like we were answering the question for her, and that she was thinking there is no God. The group agreed. The next version dropped the graphic, but still had the voice saying, “There is no God.” The voice in the ad is the executive director of the Godless American’s PAC on a TV appearance with Bill O’Reilly.

It was never an attempt to fake Kay Hagan’s voice, or imply that she thinks there is no God. The intention was to provide an exclamation to the ad, showing how radical this group is. In hindsight, that voiceover should not have been in the ad. It gave her another avenue of counter-attack to discredit it.

Hagan ran a response ad, as we anticipated, claiming that we were attacking her faith, along with the charge that we faked her voice. That second charge took some credibility away from our attack. There are those who have argued the impact of this ad on the outcome of the election. It was minimal, if any at all.

In all, Ryall says the ad had no impact on the race.

That’s debatable… Hagan’s numbers began surpassing Dole’s just as the ads began airing. Either way, the ads didn’t help Dole as the campaign had hoped they would.

But the ads will have a shelf life much longer than the 2008 elections. Future candidates will have to think twice before they use atheism as a means of attack against an opponent. The ad also got many atheists politically active over an issue that affects them personally. I don’t remember that ever happening before.

There no apology from Ryall for using atheism to tear down his opponent. (Had he said Hagan was a lesbian, I imagine GLBT groups would still be up in arms and Dole’s campaign would have been forced to apologize a long time ago.) His only regret seems to be that the ads were not aired sooner in the campaign.

Pathetic.

Paul Fidalgo, the DC Secularism Examiner, sums it up well:

I very much want a new generation of atheist politicians to emerge and to begin to run for offices at all levels, win or lose (and for a while at least, lose and lose and lose). It’s the only way we’ll begin to ease our way into the public consciousness, getting believers used to the idea of atheists in elected positions of power. But as Ryall’s heartless recollection of the Dole campaign reminds me, atheists aren’t even allowed to be near politicians, let alone count themselves among them. The hill is steeper than I sometimes allow myself to believe.

So we best get climbing.


  • Jasen777

    They had an ad like that out way before only 8 days til election.

    Edit – I guess it was technically only a press release, but it was in August.

  • http://www.myspace.com/youreundoingmybeltwronghun Tim D.

    I showed that article to a friend of mine, and she said this:

    Cry harder, cunts!

    This in response to the justification of the ads.

    I agree, in that I’m just glad they lost~

    But seriously, the fact that they backlashed the way they did has given me a lot of hope for the future of non-Christians in politics.

  • llewelly

    He has a troubling piece at Politics Magazine where he discusses why the campaign used the ads and how they were not the reason Dole lost the race.

    His piece isn’t troubling. Much the opposite. It shows he continues to have no clue. Perhaps he’ll help another dreadful politician lose.

  • Tom

    Liddy Dole has no respect for gay people. Had she claimed her opponent was a lesbian, she probably would have been pressured to apologize to her opponent, but I sincerely doubt she would ever have apologized to the gay community in any way.

  • Ben

    Does anyone know WTF a “earned media component” is? And does anyone out there appreciate having their political voice measured in terms of “earned media components”?

  • http://www.examiner.com/x-4275-DC-Secularism-Examiner Paul Fidalgo

    I hope the additional point that my piece got across (thanks, Hemant for the plug!) was that Dole was not the only one at fault. The Secular Coalition made this point nicely in its post-election video to supporters: Hagan was more than happy to throw atheists under the bus, back the bus up, and roll back over us. She never articulated that, heck, it might be okay to be in the same room as an atheist, and that she would in fact be able to share a building with Pete Stark just fine, thanks. Atheists were the pariahs of both parties.

    Hagan should not be let off the hook so easily (I think) just because she isn’t Liddy Dole — I know, usually reason enough to love someone.

  • http://www.examiner.com/x-4275-DC-Secularism-Examiner Paul Fidalgo

    Ben:
    That simply means that the ad would generate publicity on the news (for free) without having to spend the money to air the ad a bunch of times. The ad becomes newsworthy in itself and the media coverage is “earned.” Like the Bob Corker “Harold Call Me” ad: it got far more play on Hardball than on actual Tennessee TV.
    (Forgive me if everyone here already knows all that and the question was meant rhetorically.)

  • Richard Wade

    There are liars, damn liars and campaign managers. Marty Ryall screwed up and he’s trying to defend his job performance rather than those ads. In a political campaign you’re either busy winning or busy losing. There is no such thing as holding your ground, and nothing you do “has no effect.” Millions of dollars spent on ads that have “minimal if any effect” on voters are millions of dollars not spent on ads that benefit your candidate. Meanwhile, your opponent is spending her money wisely. Ryall handed Hagan a last minute gift of righteous outrage to toss back at Dole, and he and his boss had it coming.

    His remarks expose the depths of his cynicism. He doesn’t care at all that the ads were deceitful about Hagan or were exploitative of innocent citizens. No, he’s only disappointed that they didn’t help his politically,intellectually and ethically bankrupt candidate. Apparently, there actually is a limit to how deep into sewage a campaign can go until it implodes, and Ryall has plumbed it. I thank him for that exploration, and I hope he remains in those dark, brown depths, his natural environment.

  • Jersey

    That’s debatable… Hagan’s numbers began surpassing Dole’s just as the ads began airing.

    I disagree. If you actually look at the Pollster data, Hagan had already been inching ahead nearly a month in advance. That’s eons on an electoral timeline. I was working for a national org pushing blue candidates at the time, and we all felt pretty good about Hagan’s chances by mid-October.

    I have to agree with Ryall insomuch as I think the ads likely had a very limited impact on the race. It likely helped energize some of those radical religious conservatives in Dole’s base, and maybe pull a few people away from Hagan, but it also probably helped energize people in Hagan’s base (including believers objecting to the questioning of Hagan’s faith). And it also likely helped push some folks away from Dole too, for what was a pretty cynical attempt.

    Don’t get me wrong, I found those ads as repugnant as anyone. I just hesitate to overestimate the impact they might have had in Hagan’s favor, and in fact I’m glad the Dole campaign didn’t attempt to make that an ongoing issue early on. It’s cynical, but sometimes slime sticks.

    PS – Hemant, I’ve only been reading for a brief time, but digging the site.

  • Vincent

    I know a lot of atheists contributed money to Hagan’s campaign after the ads aired.
    That had to have some effect (unless the radical right had just as much added contribution to Dole)

  • http://newref.blogspot.com/ James

    Liddy Dole has no respect for gay people. Had she claimed her opponent was a lesbian, she probably would have been pressured to apologize to her opponent, but I sincerely doubt she would ever have apologized to the gay community in any way.

    Since Hagan recently spoke at the Human Rights Campaign Gala, I could image Dole doing something like that.

  • Autumnal Harvest

    Future candidates will have to think twice before they use atheism as a means of attack against an opponent.

    You keep making statements like this, and portraying the Dole-Hagan debate as showing that attacking atheists is poltiically dangerous, but I see absolutely no evidence for this. The whole episode points to the opposite. Dole said that it was bad that Hagan was associating with atheists, and implied that Hagan was an atheist. Hagan never said that it was OK to associate with atheists, or that there was nothing wrong with being an atheist; instead, she made a lot of noise about how Dole was being a slanderous liar, and that she (Hagan) was certainly not a horrible atheist, but a good Christian, just like all real Americans. The negative public reaction against Dole was that she had been unethical in falsely accusing her opponent of being an atheist. I heard nothing from either major person on either side saying that it was wrong to attack atheists; the criticism was all about the falsity of the attack. In what world does this translate into “Future candidates will have to think twice before they use atheism as a means of attack.”? It just means that if you’re going to attack your opponent as a dirty, filthy, evil, atheist, you better be able to back it up.

    Sure, it’s better to have Hagan in office than Dole, but I’m mystified how you can keep portraying this affair as some sort of moral victory for atheists.

  • Forkboy

    My local group of atheists have discussed this issue at length and thoroughly agree: there is little hope for any atheist to be elected to public office in this nation.

    Our opponents are not just right-wing Republicans, but liberals and moderates as well. I truly believe that being an atheist is more a liability in public politics than is being GLBT.

  • postsimian

    I’m calling bullshit. Here are the reasons they did it:

    1) they’re bigots.
    2) they’re bigots.
    3) they’re bigots.

    It doesn’t even need to go beyond that.

  • teammarty

    Autumnal Harvest was right. Our main part in the last election, other than voting 75-23 Democrat (and don’t ask me to remember where I saw that) was to be thier whipping boy anytime they felt they needed to show America that they were just as devout as the Republicans. We will not have a voice in American Politics until we stop limiting our choices to the Nazi and Not-So-Nazi wings of the Republicrat Party.

  • Johann

    If anyone actually thinks that there’s a chance that Hagan will stand up for the atheists who supported her, listen to this. This is her being interviewed two months after the election. Key quote: “I have never taken money from any PAC called the Godless Americans PAC, and I would never do that.”

    Funny – I don’t remember hearing anything about her returning all that dirty atheist money. :P

  • Anonymous

    Autumnal Harvest: You hit the nail on the head with that one. Bravo!

    Let us never forget: Organized atheism has a spin game to play, too, apparently not realizing that atheists are the ones most likely to see through that sort of bullshit.

  • Jersey

    I know a lot of atheists contributed money to Hagan’s campaign after the ads aired. That had to have some effect (unless the radical right had just as much added contribution to Dole)

    The ads aired a week before the election. There wouldn’t have been enough time for any big influx of money to make a difference. That’s why people focus so much on fundraising in August and September – that’s when it really matters.

    A. Harvest – right on. We shouldn’t be looking at that race through rose-colored glasses.

  • Michael

    I have some comments on your assertion regarding if Dole had accused Hagan of being a lesbian.
    Kay Hagan’s main opponent in the Democratic primary was Jim Neal, an openly gay investment banker from Chapel Hill. The NC Democratic Party approached Kay Hagan before Neal declared his candidacy, and Hagan declined to run for Senate. Once it became clear that Neal would win if Hagan didn’t run, Hagan declared her candidacy. The party threw its full support behind her.

    My point is that if Kay Hagan were a lesbian, the NC Democratic party never would have let her run. And if Jim Neal had won the primary, I’m sure we would have seen those ads.


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