But if race was not an issue in daily play for Harold Ford, the ad—now known as “Call me”—pushed it to the forefront of national discourse. In a series of quick cuts set up as “man/woman on the street” interviews, a cross-section of voters “volunteered” statements about Ford, such as: “Harold Ford looks nice—isn’t that enough?” and “So he took money from porn movie producers—I mean, who hasn’t?” But in the scene that ignited the national controversy, a young, white actress playing the stereotypical “dumb blonde,” tube top and all, talks about meeting Ford “at the Playboy party.” Then, at the end of the ad, she winks and says coyly to the camera, making the familiar hand gesture of holding a phone near the ear, “Harold—call me.”

The insinuation that bachelor Ford was lingering at Playboy parties with flirtatious blonde white women, and that this was offensive, “struck me as an ad with strong racial overtones, especially here in the South, playing off fears of interracial relationships,” Vanderbilt University political scientist (and new colleague of Ford) John Geer says.

Thanks to the mutually reinforcing impacts of the national media and YouTube, the ad was seen all over the country and was roundly denounced in virtually all quarters. The NAACP’s Washington office called it “a powerful innuendo that plays to pre-existing prejudices about African-American men and white women.” Even Ford’s opponent, Bob Corker, called the ad “distasteful.” But Ken Mehlman, chairman of the Republican National Committee, said that he saw nothing wrong with the content of the ad.

Ford himself won’t comment about the ad—or speculate on whether racism was the motivation behind it. “That race is over with,” he says, in a tone which brooks no further comment. “I don’t even think about it. The past is a platform, the future is a ceiling. I think the people that ran the ad would be better off answering that than me.”

Despite the widespread denunciation it received, the national attention the ad drew hurt the campaign overall, Brodnitz feels. “The press corps ended up fixating on it,” he says. “Harold Ford himself did not go out to the press and call that ad racist. What he did point out is that that ad, and another one, talked about pornography, and both were being broadcast during prime family time on television. He called it smut. But people didn’t really hear it—no one asked him, ‘What do you mean by that?’ The press was focused on the racial angle.”

According to Brodnitz, the ad was “a big distraction from what Ford wanted to talk about” that cost the campaign a week. That was followed by what he calls “some of the worst public polls I’ve ever seen,” showing—erroneously, he says—that Ford’s support had collapsed. “We spent another week combating that misapprehension, because if there is one thing the press likes to report as much as race, it’s process. So there were two valuable weeks when he needed to talk about change, and it was very hard to talk about anything else during those weeks.”

But that ad was only one manifestation of a larger problem at the end of the campaign, Brodnitz adds. “We were facing six different negative ads about Ford running at the same time. The press corps didn’t do anything to clarify what was true and what was false, and there were outrageous lies. It wasn’t just that one ad, but it was the combined effect.”

In fact, the other ads, which, Brodnitz contends, spread lies about Ford’s voting record, were more devastating than any sexual innuendo. “We couldn’t get the press to point out that they were false. And because of resources, we weren’t able to rebut these various outrageous accusations and do what we wanted to win. It was just a tough choice to make at the end.”

And regardless of race, Ford had an uphill battle ahead of him, says the pollster, who has worked for Virginia Governor Tim Kaine and other prominent Democrats. Apart from the issue of “him possibly being the first African American senator from Tennessee, for most of the time, the conventional wisdom was that the bigger obstacle was that he was a Democrat, and that the Republicans were going to try to paint him as a doctrinaire liberal,” Brodnitz says. “That’s always their playbook.”

While Tennessee currently has a Democratic-controlled state legislature, includes a number of Democrats in its Congressional delegation, and has a Democratic governor, it is nevertheless a very conservative state in terms of ideology and attitude—more so than Virginia, for example, says Brodnitz, despite the fact that there are more Democratic officeholders in Tennessee. “In Tennessee, more people approve of President Bush, and more people approve of the war in Iraq,” he explains. “So the context was a little tougher in Tennessee across the board.”

Rather than Ford’s race, the campaign’s biggest concern going in was money, Brodnitz says. “Ford felt very strongly about the need to be very clear about where he stood, which meant getting on the air relatively early with advertising, which meant raising a lot of money.”

Attempting to gauge whether the “Call me” ad hurt Ford in terms of the race’s final outcome is “an interpretive minefield,” says Richard Johnston, research director for the National Annenberg Election Survey. “[Ford’s] was the one Democratic race in which the Democrats gained ground and then lost it,” he adds. “It wouldn’t surprise me if part of the story was that it was an African American candidate, but maybe not so much. It could be a depressing race story, but it’s not clear that the ad is a necessary component of it.”

Brodnitz points out that the Tennessee exit polls only captured people who voted in the voting booths on Election Day—but 40 percent of Tennesseans, for varying reasons, cast their votes before Election Day. “So you have to take those polls with a little bit of skepticism,” Brodnitz says. >>

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Harold Ford's Next Move By Jordana Horn
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