The state of Illinois is routinely $5 billion or more behind in paying its day-to-day bills. Its borrowed debt stands at some $44 billion. A recent Illinois Supreme Court ruling indicated that a plan to cut public employee pension benefits might be in legal peril, leaving the state with a long-term pension shortfall of more than $100 billion.
Yet the number that set the tone for the most intensive television ad wars in the history of Illinois gubernatorial politics wasn’t in the millions or billions or tens of billions of dollars. It was 18.
“This old watch cost me 18 bucks. Pretty cheap, but it gets the job done,” Bruce Rauner told Illinois viewing audiences in November 2013, displaying a modest, plastic-looking Timex in his debut political television commercial. At the time, he was one of several Republicans seeking the 2014 gubernatorial nomination. “Pat Quinn’s watch in Springfield? Just the opposite. Record spending, taxes, job losses and one of the worst-run governments in America.”
Rauner’s commercial was the first volley in an unprecedented air war in Illinois politics. By early August — a month before campaigns generally start wooing voters in earnest — Rauner and his opponent, Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn, were spending a combined average of about $300,000 a week on TV advertising, according to CBS Chicago. By late August, the two campaigns had spent a total of more than $26 million, largely on television.
And what have Illinoisans learned for all those dollars and pixels?
Well, we’ve learned that, in addition to that $18 watch, Rauner wears a Carhartt jacket. We know he is married to a Democrat who good-naturedly razzes him about being “cheap” (read: frugal). We know, from Quinn, that Rauner is a billionaire-with-a-B —or maybe not. We know Rauner has “outsourced” jobs. (But Quinn did, too!)
We know, from Quinn’s commercials, that Quinn has “never backed down from a challenge.” We know that, before many of today’s voters were born, Quinn “took on the giant utilities.” That he froze the pay checks of legislators during the recent fight over the pension crisis “until the job was done” (though it actually may not be). That “character matters.” That his hair used to be dark.
Here’s what we still don’t know from the avalanche of advertising pouring down from both sides: How either candidate would realistically deal with the state’s unpaid bills. Or the structural deficit. Or the state pension debt.
“There’s not engagement in terms of, ‘This is how we’re going to fix the budget crisis, this is how we’re going to deal with the likely collapse of the pension deal,’” says Kent Redfield, emeritus professor of political science at the University of Illinois Springfield. He calls the current political air war “something we haven’t seen before” in Illinois, and says it’s rife with “intellectual dishonesty and half-truths.”
Take, for example, the Rauner ad titled “Better,” which aired in March. “Five years of Pat Quinn: 90,000 jobs lost, massive tax hikes, thousands of children in failing schools, and the worst pension debt and credit rating in America,” says a female narrator. She goes on to insist that “Bruce Rauner is not a politician” — a contradiction, given that the claim is being made in a high-priced political commercial — then outlines his “four goals”: more jobs, less spending, better schools and “real term limits.”
It’s a well-produced commercial that creates the impression of a knockout punch. It’s only when stepping back and analyzing each of the assertions that it becomes clear how little is actually being said. Of the five digs at Quinn, just one — tax hikes — is directly attributable to Quinn; job losses in Illinois have been part of a national trend, and the state’s struggling school systems, pension debt and dismal credit rating are bipartisan failures with roots that far pre-date Quinn’s administration.
As for Rauner’s “four goals,” he doesn’t say how he will achieve the arguably self-contradictory tasks of creating jobs and improving schools while cutting spending. That leaves term limits as Rauner’s sole substantive promise in the ad — an issue that was effectively dead as of August because of a court ruling.
Or, take Quinn’s ad titled “Minimum,” which aired at the end of August.
“Bruce Rauner has nine luxury homes, worth millions of dollars,” says a male narrator, as the screen shows a canned shimmering-swimming-pool-and-palm-tree image backed by spare, sinister music. “Yet billionaire Bruce Rauner wants to cut the minimum wage, taking more than $2,000 a year out of the pockets of low-paid workers who are barely making it.
“What kind of man would do that?” the narrator continues, as the screen shows a stark, shadowy image of Rauner. “Millions for him, but how’s that working out for you?”
The ad relies on two fact-fudging assertions. One is the declaration that Rauner is a “billionaire,” which Rauner has repeatedly denied — a denial the Quinn campaign has repeatedly ignored, presumably because “Billionaire Bruce Rauner” is just too perfect a label to give up. And, two, the assertion that Rauner “wants to cut the minimum wage” is just one of several positions Rauner has taken on the issue. His most recently articulated position is that he’d favor increasing Illinois’ minimum wage if that wage hike was coupled with pro-business and tax-cut policy changes. That position, of course, goes unmentioned in Quinn’s commercial. While Rauner certainly is guilty of inconsistency, the implication that he’s currently campaigning on a minimum-wage cut is flat-out false.
The rest of the Quinn commercial is little more than a blunt appeal to class envy, using glittering generalities from the “nine luxury homes” (Are they all “luxury”? How is that defined?) to the minimum-wage workers “barely making it” (All of them?) to the non sequitur final line — “How’s that working out for you?” — which implies that Rauner’s millions have come to him at the expense of the viewer, though it doesn’t explain why that would be.
“Both candidates have reduced their message to an extremely simple one that they’re trying to get across,” says David Melton, executive director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform. Rauner’s message, he said, boils down to “throw the bums out.” Quinn’s message: “Rauner is a rich guy who can’t be trusted.”
“For anybody who’s been paying much attention at all,” says Melton, “those commercials are not very informative.”
Even in the rare ads that do address substantive issues, there’s been a tendency to misrepresent the facts in sometimes startling ways. One example is Quinn’s insistence on highlighting Rauner’s previous position on the minimum wage while pretending his current position doesn’t exist. Another is a Rauner ad in early August, in which a narrator declares, with no supporting data, that Illinois has “the second-highest property taxes in America — and Pat Quinn wants to make his 67-percent tax increase permanent.” Quinn’s 67-percent tax increase, of course, was on the state’s income tax, not property taxes, which are set locally. While the narrator doesn’t outright say it, any angry homeowners out there who aren’t paying close attention would be left with the clear impression that Quinn was personally responsible for increases on their property tax bills.
Avoiding the filter
How do they get away with this kind of factual flexibility? Easily, since their messages for the most part are going out through paid — as opposed to “earned” — media. Without a reporter in frame, pressing Quinn on his minimum wage allegation or forcing Rauner to explain his property-tax slam, both are able to sling whatever half-truths they want, unchecked. They’re picking up the tabs, after all.
“One of the truisms is that it’s easier to raise your opponent’s negatives than to raise your own positives . . . (especially) in a race like this, with huge amounts of money, and both candidates have weaknesses,” says Redfield. “It’s all about winning.
“Some of this has been true of politics since before Lincoln, but some of it is fueled by technology . . . and money.”
The money escalation began with Rauner, who may or may not be a “billionaire.” In any case, Rauner is undoubtedly the wealthiest person ever to run for Illinois governor. He hasn’t shied from using that money, putting a total of more than $11 million of his own cash into the campaign as of mid-September. Add to that to the money he’s raised separately, and you’ve got a campaign that doesn’t have to think about money, even in that most expensive of campaign arenas, the television ad.
Rauner’s self-funding activated an Illinois campaign limitation trigger — and opened a floodgate of TV-ready cash, for both him and Quinn.
Illinois normally enforces limits of $5,300 per individual donation per election cycle, with a $10,500 limit on corporations, unions and associations, and a $52,600 limit on political action committee donations. But the state lifts those limits for all candidates in any statewide race in which one candidate has self-funded in excess of $250,000 — a threshold that Rauner had surpassed by more than 40-fold as of mid-September.
That system of lifting limits is meant to keep a level playing field in races with high-dollar self-funders, since court rulings have prohibited legal limits on such self-funding. That and other court rulings regarding the role of independent expenditures, another trigger that lifts the limits in Illinois, effectively means the current race for governor has been sent right back to the bad old days in which the state had no campaign limits at all.
“We’ve been forced into making the best of a bad situation in light of some Supreme Court decisions that were misguided, in our view,” says the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform’s Melton.
As a result, the candidates are flush with enough cash to float high above the usual question-and-answer requirements of a campaign, and can take their cases directly to the state’s TV viewers, unencumbered by the filter of the working media. Even before the traditional Labor Day start of campaign season had arrived, Quinn’s camp said it had spent about $4 million on ads — and had had more than $11 million banked as of June 30, records show. Rauner had spent more than $21 million total as of June 30, largely on television commercials and related advertising.
Thanks to all that money on both sides, “they have the luxury at this point of not bothering to get into weeds” of policy debate, says Melton. “They’re more interested in getting out their very general themes and trying to pound those home.”
Rauner’s bigfoot step into politics opened up the race in another way as well. Quinn’s relationship with the key Democratic bloc of big labor had been damaged by the governor’s steps toward state pension reform in recent years. This could have been politically fatal for Quinn, as Illinois is a state where labor can find détente with some Republicans — state Sen. Kirk Dillard, for example, one of Rauner’s vanquished opponents in this year’s GOP primary.
But Rauner has made it clear that he views the unions as part of the problem. The unions, forced to choose between an inconsistent ally in Quinn or an avowed enemy in Rauner, chose the former, held their noses and re-entered Quinn’s camp. As of the end of June, the AFSCME-backed Illinois Freedom PAC had spent some $3.5 million in the primary and general election campaigns, mostly either in attack commercials against Rauner or in support of Rauner’s opponents in both parties.
“We raised Bruce Rauner’s negatives, and we feel like we accomplished that goal of letting people know who the real Bruce Rauner is,” Mike Murray, a spokesman for the group, told the Sun-Times shortly before the March 18 primary.
The Quinn camp’s continuing quest to define “the real Bruce Rauner” was necessary because Rauner, a blank-slate candidate coming in, did a masterful job from the start of defining both himself and his opponents — almost entirely through paid media.
Rauner early on embraced a strategy of riding in behind an overwhelming wall of advertising, starting with the GOP primary campaign. Between January 2014 and the March 18 primary, Rauner bought more than 100 TV contracts, with typical prices including more than $23,000 a week for 15 ads and $26,700 a week for another 19 ads, according to Medill Reports, a publication of Northwestern University.
“If you have enough money and you can define your opponent, you don’t need to have a public record,” Paul Green, director of the Institute of Politics at Roosevelt University, told the publication. “It’s advertising.”
Although he still had three GOP opponents to contend with early on, Rauner aimed much of that television firepower —including his debut “$18 watch” commercial — directly at Quinn. It was a strategy that effectively marginalized Rauner’s three Republican primary opponents, while softening up Quinn’s defenses.
In April, Rauner briefly put the attacks on hold to run a cheeky introduction commercial, featuring his self-described Democratic wife Diana in an unabashed bid for votes from independents and disaffected Democrats. There’s a just-goofing-around quality to the ad that’s clearly meant to blur partisan political lines and get at independents. The cable portion of the buy alone was more than $82,000, and included such apolitical venues as Bravo, USA, HGTV and The Food Network. As Capitol Fax’s Rich Miller put it, “This ain’t a Fox News kinda thing.”
But for the most part, Rauner has remained in attack mode, hitting Quinn on an array of issues — some Quinn owns, some he doesn’t — and highlighting the inarguably poor state of the state in terms of its economy and finances. The sustained barrage of offense has effectively freed Rauner from having to play defense on his biggest vulnerability: a set of lofty goals with no real roadmap of how to get there.
Quinn mostly held his fire until the end of July. When asked about the series of largely negative attack ads that he’s presented since then, Quinn’s camp points to data showing that, in the 14 months before Labor Day 2014, Rauner spent almost $16 million on advertising, while Quinn spent just $4 million. Of course, that discrepancy is largely explained by the fact that Rauner had to both introduce himself to the public and defeat three primary opponents, none of which Quinn had to do. Between attack ads, Quinn has run full-minute commercials in the expensive Chicago television market on a “comeback” theme, arguing that, whatever problems Illinois still has, things have improved on his watch.
Redfield says that even when the candidates briefly put away the swords for those occasional positive ads about themselves, they’re still generally skirting the real issues that need addressing, particularly Illinois’ fiscal and pension crises.
“You can’t stabilize the situation without severe cuts and more revenue, and that’s a terrible campaign slogan,” says Redfield. “There’s a lack of acknowledgment of the depth of the problem and what it’s going to take to fix it.”
On the cusp of Labor Day — the traditional start of the campaign season — the candidates themselves were acknowledging that Illinoisans, already subject to the heaviest barrage ever of gubernatorial political advertising, were in for far more.
“We’ll continue to highlight what the governor has done,” says Quinn spokeswoman Brooke Anderson. “You really couldn’t ask for a starker choice between two philosophies of governing. The battle lines have been set.”
That’s clearly Rauner’s view, too. The Sun-Times reported at the end of August that Rauner had doubled his TV ad buys going into September. “I’ll apologize to everybody in this room,” Rauner quipped in a speech at the time. “You’re going to see my face on television more in the next two months than you’ll ever want to see it.”
Kevin McDermott is a political reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Illinois Issues, October 2014