Will Perry, Santorum, Huckabee, and Clinton Be Haunted by the Ghosts of Campaign Ads Past?

From Rick Perry's “Strong” to Hillary Clinton’s 3 a.m. phone call, these ads highlight the key struggles and strengths the candidates had in 2008 and 2012.

Screenshot from "Strong" by RickPerry.Org

For every failed presidential campaign, there's a one-sentence diagnosis of what went wrong. Hillary Clinton was hurt by Barack Obama's historic candidacy and her vote for the war in Iraq. Rick Santorum had more momentum than money. Mike Huckabee's evangelical appeal wasn't enough to beat John McCain. And Rick Perry fell victim to his gaffes. 

As those four candidates start their second runs for the White House, it's enlightening to look back at their attempts to tell their own stories, in the ads that defined their past campaigns. From Clinton's ominous "3 A.M. Phone Call" to Perry's much-parodied "Strong," these are the ads that, for better and often worse, have stood the test of time, following the candidates around like bad yearbook photos. The respective campaigns will no doubt study them closely—if often only as examples of what not to do.

Rick Perry

When: The 2012 election, just before the Iowa caucuses, in which Perry placed fifth. Perry, then the governor of Texas, ended his campaign in January.

The ad: "Strong." 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0PAJNntoRgA

Target audience: Released in December 2011 ahead of the Iowa caucuses, the ad condemned President Obama's "war on religion" and criticized the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" in an attempt to appeal to the state's Christian conservatives. 

The context: Like some other memorable moments from Perry's 2012 campaign, this ad is mostly remembered for being mocked. 

In the ad, Perry stands in an idyllic field, in front of a babbling brook. "I'm not afraid to admit that I'm a Christian," Perry says, "but you don't need to be in the pew every Sunday to know that there's something wrong in this country when gays can serve openly in the military, but our kids can't openly celebrate Christmas or pray in school." 

The video, which was divisive even among members of Perry's own staff, quickly prompted several spoofs and responses. It went on to become the most-watched campaign ad of the 2012 election. 

Perry's team said the ad wasn't meant to be anti-gay, but it was released soon after the Obama administration announced a new initiative that would use foreign aid to promote LGBT rights abroad. In a statement in response to the initiative, Perry said it was wrong to use tax dollars to promote a "lifestyle" some Americans find objectionable. 

"Promoting special rights for gays in foreign countries is not in America's interests and not worth a dime of taxpayers' money," Perry said in a statement. "This is just the most recent example of an administration at war with people of faith in this country."

Perry's stance on LGBT issues has continued to be a problem for him. Last summer Perry apologized for comparing homosexuality to alcoholism. 

Honorable mention: In "Proven Leadership," the second most-watched ad on Perry's 2012 YouTube channel, a voiceover of Obama talking about proving the naysayers wrong plays as images of abandoned, desolate American streets flash across the screen. The ad then switches to the promise of a future under Perry.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8EL5Atp_vF0

"I believe in America," Perry says. "I believe her best days have not yet been lived." A new ad from Perry's RickPAC called "Our Best Days Are Ahead" seems to have been cut from the same thematic cloth. 

Rick Santorum

When: Ahead of the 2012 Michigan Republican primary at the end of February, which former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney went on to win. Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator, dropped out of the race in April 2012. 

The ad: "Rombo."

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OtOcrS6axnE#t=21

Target audience: During his 2012 campaign, Santorum was an underdog candidate who was outspent by Romney. This ad was a pre-emptive strike against the negative ads that would air against Santorum in Michigan. The Santorum campaign told Politico that everyone in Michigan would see the ad. 

The context: In February 2012, Santorum released "Rombo," a negative ad that highlighted the millions of dollars Restore Our Future, a pro-Romney super-PAC, was spending in negative ads against Republicans. The pro-Romney super-PAC was preparing to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on attack ads against Santorum.

"Mitt Romney's negative attack machine is back on full throttle. This time, Romney's firing his mud at Rick Santorum," says the narrator, as a Romney lookalike in an oxford shirt skulks through a warehouse, shooting mud bullets at Santorum cut-outs. "Romney and his super-PAC have spent a staggering $20 million brutally attacking fellow Republicans." (Restore Our Future spent a total of $40 million against Republican candidates during the 2012 election.) The narrator goes on to say that Romney's attacks are an attempt to hide his big-government record.

Romney ended up winning the popular vote in Michigan by 3 percentage points, but Santorum picked up half the state's delegates and argued the close race was a bigger win for him. 

Honorable mention: Despite his limited funds, Santorum also had time to go after Obama in a dramatic ad depicting a post-apocalyptic America deteriorating under two more years of the president's leadership. 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fAes5wnEoaI

In Obamaville, doctor wait times were increasing, small businesses were struggling, people were holding gas nozzles to their heads, and Iran was a nuclear power. Unlike Perry's Obamapocalypse ad, this one doesn't end on a positive note.

Mike Huckabee

When: December 2007, ahead of the 2008 Iowa Republican caucuses, which Huckabee, a former Arkansas governor, went on to win

The ad: "What Really Matters."

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8xn7uSHtkuA

Target audience: Huckabee's signature supporters were Christian evangelicals, and this ad—released in mid-December 2007, during the holiday season and just before the Iowa caucuses—was a bald appeal to them. The ad also aired in New Hampshire and South Carolina.

The context: Huckabee speaks directly to the camera as "Silent Night" plays in the background. "Are you about worn out of all the television commercials you've been seeing, mostly about politics?" he asks. Given that presidential candidates were saturating the airwaves with campaign ads in Iowa, they likely were.

Instead, Huckabee says people should focus on what matters at that time of year—not polls, not get-out-the-vote campaigns, but "the celebration of the birth of Christ, and being with our family and our friends." He wishes viewers a merry Christmas as the camera pans over a bookshelf that looks a lot like a cross.

Screenshot from "What Really Matters"

Some criticized the ad, saying that Huckabee went too far in mixing politics and religion, pointing out the cross in the background. Huckabee insisted that it was just a bookcase.

Of course, that criticism likely helped his case among the people he was courting. "I got in a little trouble this last week because I actually had the audacity to say 'Merry Christmas,'" Huckabee said a few days later while giving a sermon to a 5,500-capacity stadium. "Isn't that an odd thing to say at this time of year?" 

Honorable mention: "HuckChuckFacts," in which Huckabee says his plan to secure the border is Chuck Norris. Norris, the actor best known for playing the lead in Walker, Texas Ranger, has endorsed Huckabee in the 2016 race as well.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EjYv2YW6azE

Hillary Clinton

When: Late February, ahead of the 2008 Democratic primaries in Ohio and Texas. The New York senator and future secretary of state dropped out in June 2008.

The ad: "3 A.M. Phone Call."

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7yr7odFUARg

Target audience: While Obama ran as an inspirational "hope and change" candidate, Clinton argued that her experience—especially in foreign policy—should win out. The ad was aimed at dissuading and/or scaring Obama supporters. 

The context: "It's 3 a.m. and your children are safe and asleep, but there's a phone in the White House, and it's ringing," says a deep-voiced announcer, starting off Clinton's ad attacking then-Senator Obama's inexperience. "Something's happening in the world."

The ad asked the viewer to think about who they'd want to answer that call—someone "tested and ready to lead in a dangerous world" or, as the ad implies, an inexperienced senator. The Wall Street Journal called it "one of the most provocative television ads this presidential election campaign" and several outlets compared it to Lyndon B. Johnson's 1964 "Daisy" ad, which implied that his opponent Barry Goldwater would lead America into a nuclear disaster. 

The ad never directly refers to Obama, but the hints were strong enough to inspire a spoof on Saturday Night Live. In that video "Hillary Clinton," played by Amy Poehler, walks a panicked Obama through a global disaster and teaches him how to turn the heat on in the White House. 

https://screen.yahoo.com/3am-phone-call-000000995.html

Meanwhile, in response to the ad, Obama pointed to Clinton's vote in favor of invading Iraq. “The question is, ‘What kind of judgment will you exercise when you pick up that phone?’” Obama said, according to the New York Times. “In fact, we have had a red phone moment. It was the decision to invade Iraq. And Senator Clinton gave the wrong answer, George Bush gave the wrong answer, John McCain gave the wrong answer.”

Senator Rand Paul, a Republican presidential candidate, used a similar argument last month, when he said the Benghazi attacks were a 3 a.m. phone call moment. "I think really that the issue in Benghazi is an enormous issue because it's whether or not as commander in chief she'd be there for the 3 a.m. phone call," Paul said in April on CNN's State of the Union. "I think Benghazi was a 3 a.m. phone call that she never picked up."

Honorable mention: In "Presents," Clinton labels a series of Christmas gifts "universal health care," "alternative energy," "bring back our troops," and "universal pre-K." In other words, she was running on a lot of today's progressive issues eight years ago.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jj-_cbJrCV4

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