They reveal what the candidates and their campaigns think are their strengths and weaknesses. They show where they plan to hit the other side and where they are afraid to be hit.
The gubernatorial contest between the Republican candidate, Lt. Gov. Eric Holcomb, and his Democratic rival, former Indiana House Speaker John Gregg, is a prime example.
A month ago, this was a much different race.
At that point, Gov. Mike Pence was still the Republican nominee. Gregg’s strategy and message focused on making Pence the issue – particularly the governor’s penchant for involving himself and the state in divisive battles over social issues. Gregg’s campaign ads mentioned Pence’s name and record more than they did Gregg’s.
Pence responded by throwing everything but the refrigerator, countertops and kitchen sink at Gregg. The strategy – one that rarely works – was to try to make the race a referendum on the challenger rather than the incumbent.
But then Donald Trump plucked Pence out of the governor’s race and put him on the GOP’s national ticket – and the Republican State Committee chose Holcomb to replace Pence as the party’s candidate for governor.
Suddenly, there was a new contest – with new rules of engagement.
The opening salvo was instructive.
The Republican Governors Association released an ad attacking Gregg.
The ad focused on two things – Gregg’s support in the past of Hillary Clinton and Clinton’s criticism of the coal industry, which provides a number of jobs in Indiana.
The subtext was clear.
Many businesses and business leaders had been lukewarm at best about Pence’s re-election. The RGA ad was a call for them to come home. And it was an attempt to tie Gregg tightly to Clinton, who has lower approval ratings among Republicans than many communicable diseases.
It is an article of faith among Republicans that their best shot at winning this year is to make this a battle of base votes – to turn this into a low-turnout election decided by only the most partisan and committed voters.
There is logic to that strategy.
Democrats have more voters, but their voters tend to be less determined to show up on Election Day. Republican voters are more disciplined and more dedicated. That’s why the GOP almost inevitably wins big in off-year elections when fewer people overall cast ballots.
The ad was a bugle call for the Republican faithful and a salvo at Gregg’s soft support.
Gregg’s response also was instructive.
In his ad, he sat behind a desk with pictures of Clinton and Trump turned toward the camera. He said the one on his right was “Mrs. Clinton” and the one on his left was “Mr. Trump” and that they were running for president, while he was running for governor.
Gregg said “my opponent” seemed to be confused about that – and then launched into a defense of his support for the coal industry before wrapping up with his own attack on a status quo that is costing Indiana middle-class jobs and lifestyles.
He didn’t mention Holcomb’s name once during the ad but attempted to link the Republican candidate nonetheless to Pence’s record and policies.
There is wisdom, too, to that strategy.
Pence has tremendous name recognition – both good and bad – so mentioning the governor’s name constantly didn’t cost Gregg anything.
Holcomb, on the other hand, is still an unknown quantity to most Hoosiers. He’s going to have to spend a lot of money and time making his name known to voters and Gregg seems determined not to help him do that.
The other piece of Gregg’s ad that was intriguing was the way he distanced himself from the volatile and acidic presidential race. That’s easier for him to do than it is for Holcomb, whose boss is running for vice president.
The bottom line is that Holcomb, like Pence, still wants to try to make this race about Gregg and his record. That likely will be easier for Holcomb to do than it was for Pence, because voters know Gregg better than they do Holcomb.
And Gregg still wants to run against the Pence record, but aims to paint a picture of Holcomb as little more than a faceless stand-in.
Yeah, it’s all about hitting and hurting from here on out.
Opening skirmishes in political campaigns often tell stories.