Birmingham takes to the airwaves
BY SETH GITELL
TUESDAY, MAY 14, 2002 — Senate president Tom Birmingham, a Democratic candidate for governor, is about to do the right thing for the wrong reason.
Frank Phillips of the Boston Globe reports today that Birmingham is about to go on the air with a new round of television ads. The goal of the ads, Phillips writes, is to boost Birmingham’s "image and poll numbers by the time more than 5,000 Democratic delegates are ready to endorse a candidate for the corner office." The ads’ ultimate objective is easy to discern: Birmingham wants to win the state Democratic convention, thereby delivering a fatal blow to Treasurer Shannon O’Brien, who’s currently leading the race by a slight margin.
On the question of running ads at all, I’m with Birmingham’s handlers. The Senate president has an advantage in money (almost $3 million to O’Brien’s roughly $2 million), and he might as well use it to boost his standing with voters. His campaign has been picking up steam thanks to his recent energetic debate performances. While the conventional wisdom of political consultants advises holding off on ads until late in the campaign — an approach much like the orders given by the American commander at the Battle of Bunker Hill, "Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes" — it’s critical to use money when it can help you.
But I part company with Birmingham’s handlers on the issue of the convention’s importance for their candidate. Birmingham took enough delegates at the Democratic caucuses in February to ensure a place on the Democratic ballot in September. His only risk is losing the convention to O’Brien — to which I say, "So what?" Winning the party convention does not translate into a long-term bump in voter polls. In fact, Massachusetts history is littered with examples of candidates who won the Democratic state convention, only to get trounced in the primary. This is because convention delegates skew far to the left of even the primary electorate. The most classic example of this is that of former attorney general Frank Bellotti, who won the 1990 Democratic convention — only to lose the primary to Boston University president John Silber. Another example: former Burlington state representative Auggie Grace, who took the 1994 convention nod for secretary of state and then got clobbered in the primary by William Galvin. So the convention doesn’t mean much.
Birmingham must make sure that whatever ads he runs actually do help him with voters. That means they must be better than his January ads, which attempted to introduce him to the electorate but never showed him talking — leaving viewers with questions about who he really was. If he goes negative now — as some political observers expect — that strategy may backfire and hurt him with voters.
With less than three weeks to go until the Democratic convention on May 31, it’s a high-stakes game. How he plays it will determine whether Birmingham has the mettle to be the next governor.
Issue Date: May 14, 2002
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