More than twenty years ago, a young and newly converted Republican named Rick Perry introduced himself to Texans in a statewide campaign ad that personified Texas-sized confidence. If you saw the spot, you heard an authoritative man's voice tell the simple story of why a small-town farmer was born to be a leader for the Lone Star State. Not everyone can sport chaps and a cowboy hat, throw around some rope, ride a horse, and sip from a steaming hot cup of coffee without looking ... well, a little phony. But Rick Perry managed to look like a natural. Before the spot was over, viewers were treated to the Norman Rockwell-like images of a man who still made it home each night to read to his children.
Not bad for a 30-second campaign ad.
Perhaps Texans found their Marlboro Man in Rick Perry: a man who looked tough enough to get the job done. Or maybe they were swayed by the negative ad he ran — his first ever — accusing popular Democratic incumbent Jim Hightower of misusing taxpayer dollars (a charge Hightower rejected). The Perry team ended that particular spot, called by those in the business a "negative/positive" comparison ad, on a promising note, replacing dark and dreary music with hopeful harmonious notes that showed rancher and Air Force veteran Rick Perry flip his hat and sit back in a rocking chair: he was the everyman's alternative.
Whatever the case, both ads did their job. Perry trampled the incumbent and went on to be one of two Republicans to win a statewide nonjudicial general election in 1990. Twenty-one years later, Perry is at the top of his political game with the possibility of transcending Texas politics and entering the national arena as a presidential candidate.
Reviewing two decades of Perry's political advertising reveals his metamorphosis as a public figure — owed, in part, to an image carefully crafted (or curated, depending on how you view it) by a media team that is known for being incredibly disciplined and loyal to their client. We asked Paul Stekler, an Emmy and Peabody award-winning documentary filmmaker, to help analyze Perry's political ads. Stekler is also a professor of public affairs at the University of Texas at Austin's LBJ School of Public Affairs and chair of the university's Radio-TV-Film Department.
“Essentially, what you’re trying to do in an ad is press a button with people,” Stekler said. “And certain kinds of people you’re trying to reach, hopefully that commercial will resonate. It will reinforce something you already believe in someone.”
Perry’s long been known to preside over a close-knit and highly organized campaign staff. Unlike some more cheesy political ads (someone cue the “Big Bad John Cornyn” video), Perry has built an archive of biographical, comparison, rebuttal and attack ads produced by his personal friend and long-time strategist David Weeks, the head of Weeks & Co in Austin. Weeks declined to be interviewed on the record.
“The advantage Gov. Perry always has in his media campaigns is that his team is very tight. They know what he can do well, and it shows up in these commercials,” Stekler said.
The Perry campaigns have also shown they know when to employ the help of surrogates. Perry’s closest victory to date remains the 1998 race for lieutenant governor against former state Comptroller John Sharp, a moderate to conservative Democrat. He beat Sharp by less than two points. During that race, then-Gov. George W. Bush and his father, former president George H. W. Bush, lent their support to Perry.
Watch Part 2 of 4 of The Trib's analysis of Perry’s campaign ads below. This segment features the only known ad to feature Perry and the Bush family together, followed by Stekler’s analysis of that nail-biter election.
Democratic strategist Harold Cook said he was as surprised as anyone to see the Sharp campaign pull its negative ads against Perry within days of the election.
“I disagreed with that at the time,” said Cook, who believes a few key decisions would have changed the ultimate outcome of that election. “I believe that if one of those decisions would have been to strenuously attack Perry, John Sharp would have ended Rick Perry’s career.”
On the other hand, Perry’s attack ads have been known to take out his opponents—sometimes in dramatic fashion.
“They’ve shown absolutely no hesitation to hit back and also to hit beforehand with tough attack ads. So they’ve got a lot of experience,” Stekler said.
Watch Part 3 of 4 of The Trib's analysis of Perry’s campaign ads below. This segment features the Perry campaign’s attack ad against U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison during the 2010 GOP primary, a race that matched Perry's campaign prowess against the state’s Republican establishment, which largely backed Hutchison, by tapping into the growing frustration against the federal government’s bailouts of the financial and auto industries in 2008.
Of course, no one has felt the effects — and wrath — of Perry’s ads more than his Democratic opponents. Democratic strategist Jason Stanford worked for Chris Bell’s gubernatorial campaign in 2006. He said not only did Perry boast a larger budget (“They had $20 million. There were days we were looking at $20.”), they also had the benefit of a well-oiled and experienced team.
Stanford says Perry thwarted a surge of momentum for the Bell campaign following a debate they believed Bell had won. Stanford said the campaign followed up with their first positive ad on statewide television. Perry responded promptly by airing a negative spot that labeled Bell a liberal.
“We had just started to catch fire. We went with one positive ad, and he took us out,” Stanford recalled. “When he does an attack ad, he’s like the godfather. It’s never personal; it’s always business. He does exactly what he needs to do to win. There’s no extraneous effort.”
Campaign strategists on both sides of the political aisle agree that more than half of any major campaign’s coffer is usually spent on media, whether it’s mailing pamphlets or buying air time on television and radio. Perry has employed this strategy to win six consecutive statewide victories, including: agriculture commissioner (1990, 1994), lieutenant governor (1998), and governor (2002, 2006, 2010).
Blessed with a telegenic candidate, Team Perry has used its campaign ads to develop the public persona of a man who evolved from country boy to the state’s longest-serving chief executive. Instead of ropes and horses, though, he now relies on a record of presiding over a business-friendly state in a solidly GOP environment.
Watch Part 4 of 4 of The Trib's analysis of Perry’s campaign ads below. Stekler analyzes the governor’s campaign ads from the 2010 gubernatorial race below. He notes, "the camera does like the governor a lot."
Stekler says political ads have to appeal to a fickle electorate, and their success or failure is determined by who is watching the commercials and how much money the campaigns can put into buying airtime in Texas’ many media markets.
“We can debate whether he’s actually been a good governor or not. We can debate his policies pro and negative. But nobody debates the fact that Rick Perry is a very, very strong campaigner. He’s gotten much better over the years, especially for somebody who’s this comfortable on camera. Who is this good on camera and is comfortable in his own skin,” he said.
Eight months into his fourth term as governor, Rick Perry is now seriously thinking about a run for the presidency. If he pursues the GOP nomination, he will likely employ many members of the same campaign team that has survived every test handed to them. Perry’s critics love to point out that his “Teflon” image is on the verge of being seriously tested on a national stage before an electorate that will expect something more than just Texas red meat politics.
“I think (Perry’s ads) have been very effective, and the reason I think they’re effective is they convey subtle images that suggest values to a very narrow range of voters. He has been aiming throughout his career at conservative voters in primary elections,” said Democratic strategist Harold Cook. “But they are slick campaigns that haven’t done any better than any other Republican ticket over the last 16, 17 years. I think the true test lies ahead, not behind him.”
Stekler says Perry could be a strong national candidate because — as he has proven since that first ad for agriculture commissioner debuted in 1990 — Perry has an ability to transcend the camera lens and connect with viewers.
“Delivering that kind of a message when you’re that charismatic is going to serve him well if he runs for president because he’s much more of the person I think Republican primary voters are looking for,” Stekler said.
And if Perry does run, it's those primary voters who must be swayed.
[Editor's note: An earlier version of this story miscounted the number of Republicans elected to non-judicial statewide offices in 1990.]