Of course it would be the height of hubris to select any one thing as the absolute turning point in an election campaign, especially one so tight as Democrat Jay Inslee's narrow victory over Republican Rob McKenna in Washington's governor's race. But hubris has never stopped me before.
Sure, there were a lot of factors, but in politics first impressions are everything, and Inslee's introductory ads this summer were just a kajillion times better than McKenna's. Watch the two ads side by side with the sound off. Which guy looks more like of a leader? Which guy looks more like an effete, elitist, flabby-chested geek? It's no contest.
The Inslee campaign gambled by spending big to introduce their candidate just weeks before a meaningless August primary, and man did Inslee's rugged charisma pay off. This was when most voters really started paying close attention to the race, and it was at this moment that Inslee first took the lead in the polls. It was a lead he never gave back.
Yes, brutalizing McKenna in King County—relentlessly pounding away at the Republican's carefully crafted faux-moderate image—was absolutely critical to defeating him. But without first presenting Inslee as a strong, likable alternative, the negative attacks never would have been enough. Plus, this positive first impression provided Inslee a degree of immunity from the negative Republican attacks that followed.
Thanks to his own ridiculous introductory ad—which aired weeks later—that was an advantage McKenna never enjoyed.
Advertising isn't everything in politics. Inslee was outspent, after all. But this was one election where one campaign's media team kicked the other team's ass early on. And it ended up paying huge dividends three months later.