FORT WAYNE – Mike Braun may have won this primary with his “cardboard twins” television ad. If he does win, it is likely to go down as one of the best ads in Indiana political history. I say if, because there is still a month to go for the others to pull it out or Braun to blow it. But here are some of the reasons it is a terrific ad, perfect for these times.  

1.) The cardboard twins concept. Congressmen Rokita and Messer do look a lot alike. Both are congressmen. They went to Wabash College together. Their voting records are nearly identical. Both have run for office many times. They are both ambitious. There are many more examples, but you get the point.

2.) The cardboard captures the image of Washington politicians. Most voters believe that everyone in Washington is about the same, that the Establishment (i.e. anyone who governs) practices groupthink as soon as they drink the water, and that all they do is spin things to win elections.    

3.) The twins idea. Similar but slightly different from the cardboard point.  Braun is wise to lump Rokita in with Messer, even though Rokita doesn’t quite fit the mold. Rokita may have more name identification, but his name is not so well-defined as to separate himself much from Messer at this point.  Braun is attacking both as opposed to having to devise unique attack ads to fight them separately. Rokita and Messer cannot lump Braun into a double-attack as easily. 

4.) The concept is simple and easy to understand. Rokita is trying to combine an attack on Braun and Messer by using the tax issue. While not totally wrong, it is a bit misleading. Insufficient funding for services that consumers have become accustomed to when combined with local option tax alternatives is, of course, likely to result in tax increases. Governors make the same complaint about Washington. But the argument requires some assumptions and is complicated, so opponents can make believable denials. Many simply won’t believe him, resulting, for example, in a side-fight about Mitch Daniels. Braun’s ad is decisive, clear-cut and rings true.

5.) It is funny. Done correctly, humor is by far the most effective way to deliver an attack that doesn’t look like an attack. 

6.) It makes some ideological points. The ideological points are simplistic and inaccurate ones mostly, such as on the debt limit, but fit the general opinion of the electorate right now. “Unbelievable” a “voter” in the ad responds to the congressional vote to expand the debt. On the other hand, if the debt limit wasn’t expanded and the biggest items in the budget – entitlements, with the largest being Social Security and Medicare – were suspended, the same voter would have said “unbelievable” to that as well. Attacking is easy; governing is hard.

7.) The cardboard twins aren’t even real lawyers, they’re just politicians. Braun is simultaneously calling them the second-most dreaded “L” word but then, in effect, calling them fake lawyers at that.  

8.) The ad holds one’s attention throughout. Among other things, it has lots of cuts resulting in a fast pace, the cardboard figures appear multiple times, and real people (who at least appear to be non-actors) are utilized. As a result, the ad has more staying power than typical political ads.

9.) It has a laugh-line finish with bite. Braun turns over his shoulder to address a cardboard Rokita, sitting in an adjacent booth at a coffee shop, and says, “You’re awfully quiet.” Had it been done before the apparent tagline finish, it wouldn’t have been as effective. Had he said Todd’s name, it also wouldn’t have been as effective. But it is unexpected – even after seeing it many times – because your brain thinks the ad is over and then there’s a punchline that implies that his opponents have no reply. Braun also raised the buzz about Rokita talking too much or saying things he shouldn’t without ever actually making that charge.

Congressman Messer’s ads continue to look like Dan Coats ads from the 1980s and 1990s. In other words, nice but tired. Furthermore, even when talking about coaching his son’s basketball team, Messer just looks more like he’s modeling clothes. Donnelly looked like a real coach, or at least a fan, when he did his basketball gym ad – six years ago. Perhaps in a three-way race there is a third of voters who prefer this style, but it doesn’t seem like much of a strategy to defeat a relatively popular incumbent in a year when turnout could be challenging. 

Todd Rokita’s campaign seems unfocused at this point. He sees enemies to every side, partly because he has enemies on every side. This was true, however, in every race he’s won. He is the only candidate Republicans statewide have voted for, twice, and he had statewide goodwill. He is a fighter, so losing to Braun would still be an upset.

If the Braun campaign can come up with additional variations of the cardboard twins - just as Mitch Daniels capitalized on the amazing initial traveling RV concept which transformed him into a mini-cult hero - then the congressmen are in deep trouble. The cardboard twins looking for their law offices, holding town meetings, touring monuments or shopping in Washington, visiting a factory together, or appearing to vote the same way are just a few potential variations. Sustaining his momentum will be Braun’s challenge. 

Political campaigns are ultimately marketing campaigns. Brand marketing is essential. Capturing voter’s attention is key. It is not the same as governing, but it is not clear how much that matters to voters. This has always been true, so no one should run for higher office without knowing this as a fact. If you want to govern, you also must be able to sell yourself and your ideas to the voters. It is the premise of our American system. 

“We’re working very hard on Nafta with Mexico and Canada,” he said. “We’ll have something I think fairly soon.”

Souder is  a former Republican congressman from Indiana