When he spotted Elizabeth Warren’s media consultant at a national convention party for Democratic high-rollers, Phil Johnston could not contain his concerns over the Senate candidate’s television ads.
“Do you think you could run one ad in which she smiles?’’ the former Massachusetts party chairman asked Mandy Grunwald. It didn’t go over well. “She seemed to be quite offended,” he said.
It was an awkward run-in, but one that came at a critical time in the course of Warren’s yearlong and red-hot run for US Senate, as the first-time candidate struggled to learn the craft of politics and campaigning.
The campaign that had been heralded in the world of Democratic politics appeared to be foundering. The candidate was coming across as a lecturing professor, and there were rumblings from party leaders that it was time to shake up her staff.
Warren returned to Boston pumped up over the reception to her speech to convention delegates but discouraged by the hectoring from party leaders. She had been barraged with calls to change her media strategy and change some of her campaign staff.
Once home, she pulled together her key aides and consultants on a phone conference for a review of the campaign game plan. It was a tough call, particularly for a political newcomer under pressure from the seasoned leadership of the Democratic establishment. The decisions could potentially make or break her candidacy.
Warren’s message on that call was clear: There would be no change in the campaign’s leadership.
“Basically in the end she said, ‘This is my team’ and that was it,’’ said a senior campaign adviser. “It was her way of rallying the team, essentially saying I trust you guys.’’
Two months later, Warren won a near-landslide victory over Senator Scott Brown, who had regularly polled as the most popular politician in the state.
The campaign media strategy did change after the convention — producing a spate of new ads that featured Massachusetts residents telling voters how Warren would protect the middle class.
The commercials showed her mingling with voters, listening to them, and even hugging them.
Warren’s top aides declined to comment for this story. Privately, they have said that the ads that had proven so unpopular were a critical part of building up her name recognition over the summer to compete with an opponent who was widely known across the state.
They had long planned to change the strategy coming out of the convention, to capitalize on her turn on the national stage and engage with voters in a different way.
Others who had confronted her and her staff at the convention saw it differently. “Elizabeth heard the message and immediately turned it around,’’ said Johnston, a strong and early backer of Warren’s candidacy.
To be sure, there were other critical decisions and events that shaped her victory over Brown. One of her first moves as a candidate was to create a statewide field organization that grew into the best the state has seen and ultimately fueled Warren’s eight-point win over Brown.
Despite criticism from Democratic insiders, Warren also signed an unprecedented pledge with Brown to limit outside groups from financing television ads. Ultimately, it kept millions of dollars’ worth of attack ads against Warren from flooding the airwaves. This was particularly beneficial to her as she tried to weather the most significant controversy of the campaign — her assertion of Native American heritage — which would have probably inspired a slew of third-party ads from conservative groups.
Her decision to portray Brown as a senator who could not be relied on to champion women and the middle class was yet another key element in her strong victory. And her ads, which suggested that Brown could help Republicans take control of the Senate, effectively drove a wedge between him and the Democrats he needed to win.
But the heavy criticism she received from the Democratic establishment and her reaction to it proved to be what some insiders call the crossroads in her candidacy. Whatever the reason for the recasting of the media strategy, it gave her the momentum needed to sprint ahead in the final months of the campaign, and quickly quieted the criticism.
“I think it was a pivotal point. The ads humanized her, brought out her personality and her passion for social and economic justice,’’ said Johnston. “It was quite a turnaround.”
John Sasso, a veteran national and state Democratic political strategist, said Warren was probably impressed by the ability of national Democrats at the convention to use other voices to speak for the candidate — a method that was used in her subsequent ads. President Obama’s team drew on the likes of President Clinton, Michelle Obama, and Vice President Joe Biden to promote the president on television.
“Those were more effective on his behalf than what Obama said in his own speech,’’ Sasso said.
There had been some in the party who had suggested she should stay away from the convention, to affirm the feisty independence that had been on such dramatic display during her time in Washington fighting for consumer rights.
“But it was a damn good thing she went,” Johnston said. “She absorbed the criticism and acted decisively and it changed the campaign.’’