The Big Business of Campaign Ads and Election Issues in Small-Town Michigan

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The Rolling Thunder Down Home Democracy Tour is a series of one-day festivals aimed at bringing together people in a sort of citizenship fair. Many prominent political-minded folks joined their tour, including filmmaker Michael Moore, Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr. and columnist Molly Ivins.

Gone are the days of shaking hands and kissing babies. Political candidates — and not just presidential contenders — are relying on high-cost advertising to reach voters, even as the costs to air these ads have grown significantly. But who’s profiting from these increasingly expensive campaigns, and is the public getting the information they need to vote wisely? Nine-term New York Congresswoman Louise Slaughter discusses the burden of political advertising and laments the days of grassroots outreach and meeting her constituents face-to-face.


BRANCACCIO: If you want to come face-to-face with the economic pressures Elizabeth Warren is talking about, you need go no further than Michigan. Many workers in that state are getting clobbered by the long slide in America’s manufacturing economy. One in five factory jobs has been lost there.

State democratic activists are ticked off that frontrunner John Kerry supported the North American Free Trade Agreement which shifted jobs from Michigan to Mexico.

And despite Saturday’s caucuses — and the biggest pile of Democratic delegates at stake in the campaign so far — the candidates are not running TV ads and have barely visited the state.

So I did, along with producer Betsy Rate. The town is Greenville, where they make refrigerators, at least for now.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: Greenville, Michigan is about 45 minutes from Grand Rapids. It’s pretty small and also pretty conservative, located just one congressional district over from the one represented by Gerald R. Ford, Republican, who went on to become president. Greenville is also home to a big Electrolux factory. They make refrigerators — not the line of vacuums we all know. Many Frigidaires are born in this building. Sears’ Kenmore and other brands, too. But not for much longer.

MIKE HUCKLEBERRY: They make five of the 10 best selling refrigerators right here in Greenville, Michigan. We thought life was good and it was going on. And it just — right out of the clear, blue sky.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: Just three weeks ago Electrolux announced it’s closing its plant. In this town of 8,000 people, 2,700 jobs will be leaving. Some to South Carolina. Lots to a new plant to be built in Mexico. In a statement, the company explained that all its competition has or soon will have Mexican factories. At lunch this week at Huckleberry’s Restaurant in Greenville, some Electrolux employees let me sit in as they finished off their soft drinks. They made it clear that the town did not take this news lying down.

ROBERT TURNBULL, ENGINEER: The government threw in, basically, everything they possibly could. The union threw in a heck of a lot. And at the last minute, they still said, “No, thank you.”

DAVID BRANCACCIO: Greenville residents are now struggling to make sense of both economics and politics in the wake of the Electrolux decision. Both the plant closing and this year’s political races are front and center at Huckleberry’s restaurant, situated along Greenville’s older commercial strip. Mike Huckleberry or Huck, as they call him, has owned the place for 12 years, and makes it his job to bring out lunch orders, bus dirty dishes each and every day and chat. This puts him in a unique position to gauge what delights and what ails Greenville.

MIKE HUCKLEBERRY: Well, they’re angry and they’re frustrated. And they don’t understand it. What they don’t understand is why our government would allow this to happen.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: In fact, it’s downright impossible to nosh on ribs or a brownie sundae at Huckleberry’s without reflecting on what’ll happen when Electrolux closes for good. Because Huckleberry’s also serves food for thought – its owner’s political manifesto appears on every one of its placemats.

MIKE HUCKLEBERRY: “Dear politicians. In spite of continued raises and perks for yourselves, you have allowed NAFTA and unfair world trade policies to take its toll on hard working Americans, their families and the communities they live in, as well as our great community. In spite of it, we have news for you. Greenville is bigger than Electrolux.”

DAVID BRANCACCIO: It’s an American tradition – Tom Paine had his pamphlets, Matt Drudge has the internet and Huck has his placemats. So do his customers.

MIKE HUCKLEBERRY: People started writing on them on their own. I didn’t have to prod ’em or anything.

Here’s a great one.

“If middle class Americans cannot work and earn a living wage, they will no longer be able to fill the coffers of the highest paid executive. And we all suffer.”

DAVID BRANCACCIO: And this just from a customer here at Huckleberry’s?

MIKE HUCKLEBERRY: They just sat down and started writing it. It’s incredible.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: As Huckleberry likes to say, he gets all “walks” in his restaurant line workers and plant managers all of whom eats off those placemats.

MIKE HUCKLEBERRY: They agree with them totally. I mean the man– this isn’t a blue-collar issue. This is a white collar issue too. Now the educated people are losing their jobs.

So where does somebody go with a high school education? What does he train for that isn’t gonna be moved to China, India or Mexico? I don’t have– I don’t know that.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: It’s a frustration that’s especially painful given the way the community snapped into action when confronted with the Electrolux plan.

WALKER: The way the group came together and the things we were able to put together into a package I became very optimistic.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: Lloyd Walker is Greenville’s mayor and job he’s been elected to off and on three times over the past three decades or so.

WALKER: And we brought in engineers, we brought in architects, we brought in industrial designers. We got together with the union, the UAW.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: And for a town of only 8000 people, the task force drew up quite a package. Electrolux had calculated it would save 81 million a year by moving to Mexico, Greenville’s offer was close. By the town’s calculation just 8 million dollars short.

MIKE HUCKLEBERRY: Electrolux was asking for $81 million. And we came up with $73 million dollars in savings a year. And it still wasn’t enough for Electrolux.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: Mayor Walker’s final strategy was a heart-felt letter to a senior company official.

WALKER: I told him how the history of the plant in Greenville, how refrigerator manufacturing was the fabric of this community, something that we’d had for over 100 years. There are things that are intangible that ought to be considered.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: An Electrolux VP called back:

WALKER: His last words were — that eventually it will be decided on economics, not on emotions.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: Of course, economics does rule. On January 16th, Electrolux said it would close its doors sometime next year.

President Clinton signed the NAFTA in 1993, lifting tariffs and allowing both goods and factories to move across international borders at will. Greenville, Michigan is one place where the economic pain is becoming a reality. According to the U.S. Labor Department, the number of factory jobs in America has dropped by 2 point 6 million since the last recession began — roughly the same length as President Bush’s term in office. It dropped 11,000 more just last month.

As it happened, the Greenville Electrolux plant received its sentence the very same day that the Bush administration unveiled its plan to support the beleaguered manufacturing industry. Among other things, the plan would direct the Commerce Department to “root out” unfair trade practices and ease taxes and regulation for companies hurt by trade policy.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: You’ve expressed a lot of frustration directed toward the federal government. I haven’t heard much about Electrolux itself. It’s based in Sweden. It owns the factory here. You’ve expressed surprise and disappointment, but you don’t really pin the blame on them?

MIKE HUCKLEBERRY: I don’t. Not at all. I don’t know if they had a choice.

All of their competitors have already moved there. How do they compete in America when everybody they gotta sell against is already there at $1.57 an hour wage and they’re paying $15 a hour? I blame it all on the federal government. Corporations that go there have to survive.

And the question that I’ve gotta ask is when they’ve eliminated all of these jobs, who’s gonna buy their products?

DAVID BRANCACCIO: Who’s gonna buy the refrigerators?

MIKE HUCKLEBERRY: Who’s gonna buy ’em? The Mexicans aren’t gonna buy the refrigerators. They make $1.57 an hour.

We’re exploiting them.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: And sitting around the restaurant with Huck, you quickly get the sense that’s the foreign policy that really matters here these days.

But jobs and the economy can’t be the only issues that you’re hearing about as you circulate among your customers here in the restaurant. National security is a crucial issue. The war against terror. That must be something that– that must be a key concern here as well?

MIKE HUCKLEBERRY: Well, certainly it is. But we’re away from– it– you know we’re away from big cities, so we don’t feel the pressure that they might. But I’ll tell you right now, in Greenville, Michigan, the number one issue is what are we gonna do about all of these jobs going.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: President Bush’s proposed budget this week calls for more money to help workers retrain by linking industry with community colleges. In practice, Electrolux engineers see a variety of challenges.

What would you do?

ROBERT TURNBULL: Well, I’m looking at my options right now. Thinking about going back to school, going into teaching. Just kind of sittin’ back and looking slowly. Really don’t want to leave this area. This is my hometown.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: If you have to go into teaching, are you concerned that your standards of living would have to change in some way?

ROBERT TURNBULL: Oh, yeah. We’re – we’re prepared for the financial change I think the biggest problem is the classes that I have to take are day classes.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: Make that day classes, a partime job at nights, and in all likelihood, lower take-home pay.

ROBERT TURNBULL: I don’t know. I gotta see if it’s financially feasible to basically go hungry for three years. And I don’t know. I can do it. But my kids get kind of cranky.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: Others are feeling more than cranky. Federal Mogul, a car parts manufacturer, announced last week that it could lay off 310 workers in Greenville.

Still, Mike Huckleberry, who’s active with the local Chamber of Commerce remains tenaciously upbeat. He saw how another Michigan town is in the running for a new Boeing factory because it had recreation, a hospital, a good school system.

MIKE HUCKLEBERRY: And I said “You know what? Some good manufacturer out there is gonna say, “Geez, I’d love to live in a great community like this, surrounded with lakes and golf courses and a work force like that. And maybe this would be a great place to put a plant.”

DAVID BRANCACCIO: Well, forgive me for asking personal political questions, but I hear Chamber of Commerce. I figure GOP, Grand Old Party. You a Republican?

MIKE HUCKLEBERRY: No, I’m not. I’m one of a few Democrats in this community. But saying that, I wanna– point out I vote for good Republicans. I’m not a straight ticket puller.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: What do you think about how the economic stresses on this community right now, how that’ll play out on election day? Either at the caucuses or perhaps in November? Do you think it’s causing people to reevaluate how they vote?

MIKE HUCKLEBERRY: I get the feeling from a lot of people that are good conservative Republican are dismayed– by President Bush’s support of– NAFTA and other un– word– unfair world trade policies. And they’re frustrated with it. And I’ve had several of ’em point out to me, “This isn’t what I voted for. I didn’t vote for all the jobs to go across the border. This is– has nothing to do with my good conservative values.” They understand that a working man has to make a living. That we have to have industry. And they’re seeing that– not being eroded. It’s eliminated.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: If all politics is local, the economic pain in this community is transforming the political perspectives of both parties this election year. Greenville’s longtime Republican mayor.

WALKER: I can say that I’ve never voted for a Democrat for president, I’ve never voted for a Democrat for governor, I’m having some second thoughts.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: Mike Huckleberry will be taking a rare break from his restaurant for something unprecedented. So you have a caucus coming up here –


DAVID BRANCACCIO: — as a Democrat. You –



MIKE HUCKLEBERRY: Yes, I am. I’m gonna be honest with you. I’ve never voted in a caucus before.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: This is your first time?

MIKE HUCKLEBERRY: This is my first time. I feel very strong that because of NAFTA and everything that’s going that — that – I’ve gotta vote in the caucus. So I’m looking forward to it. It’ll be this Saturday.

ANNOUNCER: Next week on NOW: From coast to coast, the airwaves thunder each day with the sounds of right-wing talk radio.

DJ: Vaguely French-looking and botox-denying John Kerry winning and saying that.

ANNOUNCER: Where do their talking points come from?

RANDI RHODES: How in the world could you turn on five different shows and they’re all talking about the same thing that day. How is that possible?

ANNOUNCER: An inside look at talk radio— next week on NOW.

And connect to NOW WITH BILL MOYERS online at

More facts about economic stress on the middle class. See how elections are tilted towards incumbents. “By the People” 2004: Learn about the election year issues that matter most to you.

Connect to NOW at

MOYERS: After hearing David’s report from Michigan, you can certainly understand why Democratic voters there are grumbling over being slighted by the candidates.

After all, in Iowa and New Hampshire, voters would get a knock on the door and there would be a candidate introducing himself again. No more.

In the big states ahead, as a candidate you hope for lots of news coverage — what we call free media — and the money to buy TV spots that become your surrogate.

With more and more voters to reach and time running out, the TV commercial becomes the weapon of choice. Candidates will tell you, you can’t do without them. With a TV spot, you can shape, shine and send the message you want to send, on your own terms.

As you’ll see in this report produced by my colleague Brenda Breslauer, the TV commercial has changed American politics.

Some of us are old enough to remember the early days of political advertising on television. It was the 1950s, and General Dwight D. Eisenhower ran for President with animation by Disney and a campaign jingle by Irving Berlin.

His opponent, Illinois governor Adlai Stevenson, countered with a siren song of his own.

These early campaign ads could be critical—

Chirpy, feel-good, and positive—.

—or scathing and negative.

Political ads came to define the candidates and their opponents as well as a campaign’s message. The positive ones got slicker and slicker—

—and the negative ones nastier—

—and nastier.

North Carolina’s conservative senator Jesse Helms ran this ad in 1990. “Nasty” worked; he won reelection.

Today, political TV ads show up in just about every competitive congressional race in the country. Sales have gone from an estimated 53 million dollars’ worth in 1970 to a projected 1.3 billion dollars for this year.

STRUBLE: For my clients, if they don’t spend at least two-thirds of their money on radio and television, they’re misspending their money. They’re increasing the likelihood they’re gonna lose.

MOYERS: All this advertising is turning democracy into commerce and candidates into money-chasers, says at least one top Democratic media consultant. Karl Struble has watched it happen during his twenty years devising strategies for congressional and gubernatorial candidates and seeing costs skyrocket.

STRUBLE: No matter if you go to the smallest state in America these days, they’re multi-million dollar races.

MOYERS: Louise Slaughter wants to slow down the money chase. She’s been a Democratic representative from upstate New York for eighteen years, and she says television ads are replacing old fashioned grassroots contact with constituents.

SLAUGHTER: When I first ran, everybody had headquarters. They were able to have bumper stickers and buttons, and billboards and radio.

But no more. By the time I ran for Congress in 1986, we knew already that if you weren’t on television, you weren’t real.

MOYERS: In her last campaign, Louise Slaughter had almost a million dollars to run for reelection. A huge chunk of it had to go to television, she says, because her district had been redrawn.

SLAUGHTER: This last campaign was a new one for me, in that I got a brand new district, which was 60 percent new.

So, I had 60 percent of the people who’ve never heard of me. So, we spent $500,000 on television.

GOLDSTEIN: When you figure that out per voter and per time that a voter sees a message, it’s actually not that expensive.

MOYERS: Ken Goldstein teaches political science at the University of Wisconsin and tracks TV campaign ads for the Wisconsin advertising project. Whatever their shortcomings, he says, political ads enable voters to know something of candidates they’ll never see in person.

GOLDSTEIN: If Louise Slaughter has this new district, and she’s gonna introduce herself to the district, sure, in a perfect world, we’d like her to be able to go walk every single house in that district. That’s not possible. Even if it was nice weather in Rochester, New York, that’s not possible.

The most efficient way for her to communicate with these voters and for them to get that little nugget of information about her and even more than a little nugget of information about her is through political advertising.

MOYERS: Maybe so, says Louise Slaughter. And she certainly knows how to uses ads effectively. Still, she laments how they reduce politics to photo ops. This ad is from her last campaign.

SLAUGHTER: It didn’t tell anybody who I was or what I stood for, anything about my record. It just was the usual thing. Picture Louise with senior citizens, picture her in a diverse group.

See her walking on the street with a young family. The same ads I’ve been doing every two years now forever, and if you complain about it, they’ll tell you, you don’t know what you’re talking about.

MOYERS: Louise Slaughter won that race with 63 percent of the vote.

But even if the half million dollars she spent on TV did the trick, Slaughter doesn’t think that’s where her supporters’ money should go.

SLAUGHTER: I remember when I first ran in ’86, a woman sent me a $10 bill stapled to a postcard. She lived in Seattle, and she said, “You’re getting my contribution this year.” I mean, people really work hard for you, sacrifice for you.

And their money shouldn’t be spent that way.

MOYERS: And where do those campaign contributions go? Mostly to local television stations.

STRUBLE: The cost of production and consulting are really probably less than 10 percent of what it costs that they put on the air. So 90 percent of the dollars that you see in television have the, you know, you’ve seen your TV ads, are not on the production side. They really go into the TV stations.

MOYERS: He should know. Karl Struble oversaw about 20 million dollars worth of TV buys for his clients in the last election cycle. He says while that’s good for his business, it comes at a high price to democracy.

STRUBLE: The rates go up and up as demand or how tight the race is. You know, I’ve seen rates double as you get in the last couple of weeks of the campaign. And what that effectively does is it mutes the voice of less well off candidates.

MOYERS: Which brings us back to Louise Slaughter and her efforts to do something about it. She tried repeatedly in the 1990s to require broadcasters to give something back for their use of the public airwaves—to no avail.

Then in 2002, she supported a provision of a bill demanding broadcasters offer candidates commercial time at reduced rates.

The provision was struck from the bill.

SLAUGHTER: Broadcasters are the strongest lobby in Congress. Members are afraid of them. They have the ability to punish you. They often set the tone in the town in which you live and I think there’s that innate fear. “I’m not gonna rile these people up. They may do me some harm.”

MOYERS: Yet even as the industry goes on raking in big profits from political ads, little of that goes into covering public affairs. Karl Struble says he can barely get his candidates’ positions on the air unless he buys the time.

STRUBLE: You know, local TV stations, you literally gotta strip naked and set your hair on fire to get ’em to cover anything about policy. If there’s a scandal, they might cover you if you’re a politician. But they won’t cover you if you’re talking about policy.

MOYERS: That’s why a chance encounter with a TV ad may be all voters learn about a political campaign.

STRUBLE: We can’t force them to read the newspaper. We can’t force them to go to Web sites. We can’t force them to go to watch debates.

Passively while they’re watching other shows, they get little bits of information, little vitamins of political information in terms of political advertising. I think that’s helping at the margin.

MOYERS: So even candidates with reform on their mind have to learn to use commercials to their advantage. Earlier in Louise Slaughter‘s career one of her opponents went on the attack.

But Slaughter gave as good as she got.

SLAUGHTER: I did one ad once that I was really proud of. I was running against a multi-millionaire. And he had an ad with some really— the finest women in my district, saying that they used to like me.

But they believed that I have changed. And so, they’re not gonna vote for me anymore. And I insisted on talking to the camera and saying, “Look. I’m the same Louise I was when you first sent me to work for you. If I could change, the one thing I’d be is thinner” I could tell in two days that the tide had turned. It was honest. It was me. I was talking to people. It was— I— but I had to insist on doing it.

GOLDSTEIN: Advertising matters at the margin. You think Al Gore wished that he would have spent a couple hundred thousand more dollars in Florida in 2000?

We’re in a very evenly matched political time in this country.

MOYERS: The result, says Louise Slaughter, is that campaign ads and the chase to raise money for them have become the necessary evil of American politics.

SLAUGHTER: At the same time, I’ll tell you, if I’m not on that television, nobody takes me seriously. And we have to compete with everything in the world, just to try to get the voter’s attention.

BRANCACCIO: As the candidates and their campaigns dash across the country, we’ve been taking a look at how people connect to the political process.

A couple of weeks ago, NOW dropped by the Conservative Political Action Conference in Virginia. Tonight we check in on a new trend in grassroots organizing.

In Kansas City, people have come together to put on what looks like a county fair. They’ll set up stands for food and stages to hear live music, but they have ambitions way beyond a Saturday afternoon pastime. They want to reinvent politics.

CHEATUM: Well, corporations and big government have taken us over and this country is founded on the people and the populace and we want to have that again. So that’s why we’re having this. We’re going to take back America.

BRANCACCIO: How does one take back America? People here say you have to put the party back into politics.

That’s the mission of the Rolling Thunder Down Home Democracy Tour, a series of one-day festivals that bring together people who want to connect with democracy.

Like many efforts to invigorate politics, it’s not quite setting the world on fire. But, the founder of Rolling Thunder says you have to start somewhere.

HIGHTOWER: The idea of Rolling Thunder comes from nature. I grew up in north Texas, northeast Texas. And there, the Rolling Thunder is a national phenomenon. It is the harbinger of the rains that green up the grassroots and let the flowers bloom. And in this case, we’re talking about the flowers of democracy.

BRANCACCIO: Jim Hightower used to be the Texas agricultural commissioner. Now he’s an author, radio commentator and a national rabble-rouser who calls himself America’s #1 populist.

His latest book, THIEVES IN HIGH PLACES was a bestseller.

Hightower says that people come out to Rolling Thunder because they feel that politics is not speaking to them.

HIGHTOWER: People are yearning to meet each other. And not just high tech, but high touch. To actually be in touch with each other. And to talk back. And what if we all got together?

BRANCACCIO: Every Rolling Thunder event has tables and dozens of workshops on all sorts of issues, from campaign finance reform, to protecting civil liberties—

The goal is to let people learn from each other about local and national issues—as well as alternative ways of getting things done.

MAN: The antifreeze line right here is running next to the vegetable oil, so they heat it up. And as soon as it’s warmed up, you hit the switch and it goes to the vegetable oil. And it goes zoop, zoop, zoop, into your fuel injector.

WOMAN: My job is racial justice, so I work with different populations.

MAN: Small scale neighborhood credit unions instead of a giant, massive—

MAN: Just so money within the neighborhood stays within the neighborhood.

REGGIE: So tie in this these workshops, make a commitment to one of these groups, and get your email on that list so that other people can find you.

BRANCACCIO: The inspiration for Rolling Thunder came from a movement that began in 1874 on the banks of Lake Chautauqua, New York. There, families would camp out every summer to hear speakers and music, put on plays, and engage in open forums on philosophy, literature, art, religion and science. Chautauquas, as they were known, became so popular, they went on the road. And at their peak in the 1920s, they attracted at least 10 million people a year.

Jim Hightower saw the potential in creating a modern day Chautauqua, but one with agitators in the mix.

Like filmmaker and author, Michael Moore.

MOORE: You guys all just gotta do it!

BRANCACCIO: Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr.

JACKSON: All Americans deserve the right to a public education of equal high quality.

BRANCACCIO: And columnist Molly Ivins.

IVINS: Y’all need to have more fun.

HIGHTOWER: Agitation is what America is all about. Were it not for agitators, we’d be wearing white powdered wigs singing God Hail the Queen here this afternoon! America was built by agitators!

BRANCACCIO: There’s no question that there are plenty of agitators on hand. But after the tents and tables are put away, it remains to be seen if people will go home and reinvent politics.

MULKEE: I think that one of the benefits of getting together like this is to see that there are more of us than we think there are. You know. Even if it is preaching to the choir. You know. That’s ok. There’s a time for that.

MOORE: And I think people are gonna go from here and do— go back to their towns, go back home and do something. Not everybody. It doesn’t have to be everybody.

Just need one Rosa Parks that was here today. That’s all we need.

BRANCACCIO: What kind of impact will Rolling Thunder have on the political landscape? Stay tuned. So far, 68,000 people have turned out to the events across the country—

From Seattle, Washington to Asheville, North Carolina. And there are six more cities planning festivals this year.

HIGHTOWER: Politics ought to be part of your life. It’s not something that is just in the last thirty days of an election.

But the whole idea of a Rolling Thunder Down Home Democracy Tour is to be festive, and mostly for you to enjoy it, and to think, “Hey, this isn’t bad. If this is what politics is, I could do this.”

BRANCACCIO: A final note. This week, President Bush asked Congress for $401 billion in military spending for 2005. That’s a 7 percent jump over this year. Now, that is an increase that brings him close to the Reagan era military buildup.

The budget is silent on money for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. This website,, lets you check the cost of the war yourself.

President Bush will let us know how much supplemental money he’ll need to pay that bill after the elections.

MOYERS: And that’s it for NOW. If WALL STREET WEEK follows our show in your city — as it does on many stations — our friends there are tracking how money flows into political advertising.

This transcript was entered on April 23, 2015.

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