Case Studies

Rob Portman for Senate

FP1 Strategies is proud to have served as the media consultant to Senator Rob Portman’s successful reelection campaign.

The widely-respected Cook Political Report said that “Portman easily ran the best Senate campaign of the cycle.” The Washington Post said that “nobody is having a better election year than Rob Portman,” and the executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee admitted that Senator Portman “ran a damn fine race.”

We are grateful for the opportunity to have been a part of this trendsetting campaign that melded sophisticated uses of data with compelling messaging and powerful advertising, resulting in Senator Portman winning 84 of Ohio’s 88 counties.

Challenge

Senator Portman began the race as a decided underdog. Due to the large size of Ohio, and the fact that the state has 11 media markets, Senator Portman was simply not well-known. His hard name ID was only 55 percent at the start of the campaign.

Ted Strickland, a former congressman and governor of Ohio, was hailed as a blue-chip recruit by national Democrats and Senator Portman’s seat was near the top of their target list. In an April 2015 poll conducted by the respected Quinnipiac University, Strickland led Senator Portman by a margin of 9 points, 48 percent to 39 percent.

The rise of Donald Trump in the Republican presidential primary season and Bernie Sanders on the Democratic side revealed that there was strong opposition to the status quo in Washington, D.C. and a populist strain in the electorate, creating the potential for 2016 to be a very challenging environment for incumbents.

The Trump and Sanders campaigns also exposed the potency of the anti-trade message. It had been sixteen years since middle class families had received a pay raise, and many of them were blaming trade and globalization for their declining standard of living. This was particularly concerning, given that Senator Portman had served as United States Trade Representative for President George W. Bush, had voted for NAFTA in Congress and had supported most-favored-nation trade status for China. Strickland and the Democrats were going to spend tens of millions of dollars trying to define Senator Portman as the “Best Senator China Ever Had.” We knew we needed a potent response to neutralize this issue. Another complication came from Strickland’s fourteen years in Congress representing Eastern Ohio, a Republican-trending part of the state. Strickland had a strong base among white, working-class voters in a region of the state we needed to run up big numbers in to be successful.

Finally, there was great uncertainty about the impact Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump would have on women voters. We knew that Clinton would try to run the Democrats’ traditional “War on Women” campaign against Trump and that it had the potential to cause real problems for Senator Portman, given the controversial nature of what the Republican presidential nominee had said previously about women.

Our Solution 

We had our work cut out for us, but our early polling data and focus group research identified a clear path forward.

We developed a message strategy and advertising campaign to achieve the following objectives:

  • Showcase Senator Portman’s Results/Define Ted Strickland as the D.C. Insider
  • Expose Strickland’s Failed Record as Governor
  • Build a Firewall Among Independent Women
  • Take Away the China Issue/Win on Jobs

When we finally began our TV campaign for Senator Portman in May of 2016, we focused on his leadership in forging bipartisan solutions to the heroin epidemic. More than 1,000 Ohioans die from heroin overdoses each year. The city of Dayton was ground zero for the heroin epidemic with the most opioid-related deaths of any American city. Senator Portman had long been an advocate for increased funding for law enforcement, treatment and recovery to help families break the grip of addiction.

Our first TV ad, “Holly,” featured the emotional testimonial of a mom who had lost her young daughter to addiction.  This ad was designed to achieve two goals:

  • Show viewers that Senator Portman delivers results and is part of the solution, not part of the D.C. dysfunction that angers so many voters.
  • Drive up Senator Portman’s favorables with Independent women; 66 percent were more likely to support his reelection after hearing about his work on the heroin epidemic.

The second TV ad of the campaign was intended to continue building a firewall with Independent women. “Trafficking” showcased Senator Portman’s leadership in cracking down on the awful crime of human trafficking and featured the testimonial of a well-known advocate who had been a victim herself. Women voters were 88 percent more likely to support Senator Portman after hearing of his leadership on this issue.

Over the summer months, our advertising campaign focused on jobs and Senator Portman’s record of standing up for Ohio workers. We knew we had real vulnerabilities on the China issue and that this was a potent issue for blue collar voters. In our polling, more than 70 percent of Ohio voters said the Democrats’ trade messaging made them less likely to support Senator Portman.

The fact that Donald Trump was pounding away at the issue on the national stage, coupled with Strickland and the Democrats putting their entire campaign behind the China issue, upped our stakes.

Fortunately, Senator Portman had taken the lead in the Senate on fighting back against China’s currency manipulation. He had opposed the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal and he had been successful in standing up for Ohio steel companies against Chinese steel dumping.

“Steel” featured a powerful testimonial from the owner of an Ohio steel company about how Senator Portman was pushing back against China to protect Ohio jobs.

“Gregory Industries” and “Defending Ohio Jobs” were the next two ads to run on TV. They both showcased how Senator Portman’s leadership in Washington saved Ohio jobs, further inoculating him against the anger towards D.C. and conveying his effectiveness in fighting and winning for Ohio workers.

 

“Olympics” ran during the Summer Olympic Games and continued our focus on Senator Portman’s efforts to fight back against China when they cheat and try to steal Ohio jobs.

We had dedicated 2015 and the early part of 2016 to releasing a series of web videos that helped define Ted Strickland as a bad governor who would be an even worse senator. These web videos garnered significant earned media attention in Ohio, but, more importantly, showed outside groups and super PACs exactly how to talk about “Retread Ted” Strickland’s failed record as governor.

The videos “Abyss” and “Ohio Lost Jobs” highlighted the over 350,000 jobs that were destroyed on Strickland’s watch.

 

The videos “Dream Job” and “DC Insider Ted Strickland” exposed Strickland as a creature of Washington who sold out Ohio to cash in at the lobbying arm of a liberal organization that advocated for the War on Coal that was so devastating to Ohio families.

 

Post Labor, we were ready to make our final case to Ohio voters that Ted Strickland was a bad governor who would be an even worse Senator, and that Rob Portman should be reelected.

President Bill Clinton’s drug czar, Barry McCaffrey, appeared in a spot endorsing Senator Portman’s leadership on the heroin epidemic.

In another ad, the sheriff of Montgomery County, where Dayton is located, contrasted Senator Portman’s leadership on the heroin epidemic with the reckless funding cuts for drug addiction services made during Strickland’s governorship.

Our economic messaging in the fall highlighted the endorsement of the Ohio Teamsters. “Teamsters” featured the president of a Teamsters local talking about how he was a proud Democrat who was supporting Senator Portman because he stood up to China and fought hard for working families.

In October, we ran “Coal Miner” in Ohio coal country to educate voters about how their former congressman had turned his back on them by joining Obama and Clinton’s War on Coal.

After the Access Hollywood tape of Donald Trump surfaced, we took quick action to fortify Senator Portman’s standing with women voters by running “Jane,” an ad featuring Mrs. Portman, and by putting the previously-aired spot on human trafficking back on TV.

We also continued to expose the failings of Strickland’s governorship in the closing weeks of the campaign with ads like “By the Numbers.

We ended the race with an uplifting spot that reaffirmed Senator Portman’s commitment to fighting back against China to protect Ohio jobs. “Flag Factory” was filmed at the Ohio flag factory that made both the American flag that was hoisted above Iwo Jima during World War II and the flag that was planted on the Moon in 1969.

We deployed a “no stone unturned” approach to the campaign. In addition to the advertising detailed above, we deployed a five-month long radio campaign in Strickland’s old congressional district that exposed his failures on jobs, his support for the War on Coal and how he had lost the endorsements of the NRA and United Mine Workers to Senator Portman.

We ran a Spanish-language ad on Univision in Cleveland. We targeted African American voters on BET with “Second Chance,” an ad highlighting Senator Portman’s leadership on helping former prisoners get back on their feet and find gainful employment.

 

We deployed legendary golfer Jack Nicklaus in “Ohio’s Champion” to appeal to senior voters in his hometown of Columbus. We even ran a radio ad targeted to the Ukrainian community in Cleveland.

   

Senator Portman had a great story to tell and we took his message to every corner of Ohio to reach every Ohio voter.

The Result

On November 8th, Senator Portman was reelected by a commanding margin of 58 percent to 37 percent. He defeated Ted Strickland by more than one million votes and ran over 200,000 votes ahead of Donald Trump.

According to exit polls, Senator Portman carried women by a margin of 54 percent to 42 percent. Among college-educated white women, a key swing voter group in the vital Cleveland and Columbus suburbs, Senator Portman won by a margin of 61 percent to 36 percent.

Senator Portman won Independents by a margin of 61 percent to 33 percent and he carried 16 percent of the African American vote, an exceptionally high share of this voter group for a Republican.

Senator Portman not only took away the China issue from Ted Strickland, but he also dominated among the 48 percent of voters who believed that trade was taking away jobs instead of creating them. Senator Portman carried these voters by a staggering margin of 74 percent to 23 percent. He won white voters without a college degree by a margin of 68 percent to 28 percent and he even carried union households by a margin of 59 percent to 40 percent.

It was a tremendous victory and we are extremely proud to have been a part of the great campaign team that made it possible.