Q&A: Erik Potholm '91


Political consultant Erik Potholm on the ways television advertising drives today's politics

By Gerry Boyle '78
Photography by Fred Field

Erik Potholm '91 is a partner in the political advertising firm of Stevens, Reed, Curcio & Potholm, of Alexandria, Va. The company played a pivotal role in the 2004 presidential election when it represented Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, a group opposing Sen. John Kerry. Potholm grew up in and around Brunswick, where his father, Chris Potholm, is professor of government at Bowdoin. Erik Potholm spoke with Colby about his career.

I'm curious. Why Colby, not Bowdoin?
I grew up around Bowdoin and as a young kid obviously thought it was a great place and a beautiful school. But when I had that first visit up on Mayflower Hill I knew. I said, "This is the place for me."

Photo by Fred Field
And did you plunge right into the Government Department?
No, actually, I wasn't quite sure what I wanted to do. I think I may have actually been interested in economics at first, but I think my sophomore year I took a class with either Cal [Mackenzie] or Tony [Corrado] and I just said, "Oh, wow." And then I took one with Sandy [Maisel] and I just really loved it.

So what steered you toward the advertising end of politics?
When I graduated from Colby, in ninety-one, it was a tough economy. I ended up taking a job on a campaign. It was an issue campaign.

Which campaign was that?
This was the Maine Turnpike original widening referendum. I just became addicted to the campaign lifestyle, working long hours, the intensity. My side at the time had a lot of money, we were for the widening, and we outspent our opponents by quite a bit of money. But in the closing weeks, after coming home one night after a long day at the campaign office, my opposition came on with this very powerful and compelling TV spot. I knew right away how powerful it was. It hit all the right messages and all the right buttons and I had this sinking feeling in my stomach. I said, "We're in trouble." Sure enough, literally overnight the dynamics of the race changed, and they ended up beating us pretty soundly.

And that got you hooked?
I saw firsthand the power of political advertising, the power of TV. It can really make a difference. One of the people in that campaign said, "If you like what you're doing, you should check out this unique program at [George Washington University]."

So you did?
I went down there and it is a unique program in political management. I took a class on campaign advertising taught by one of the legends in this business, a guy named Doug Bailey, and also had a chance to take a class with the president of this firm, Greg Stevens. Once I was in those classes it was further confirmation that, boy, I love political campaigns, but what I really love is advertising and the role it plays. I landed here in 1994 and worked my way up every cycle and then eventually became a partner.

Was political advertising on television as influential then?
I think it was probably recognized, but it was probably recognized on the high-end races, meaning [U.S.] Senate races or governor races and big ballot measures. Today you're seeing even state senators and sheriffs running political ads. So there's much more prevalence now with the rise of cable TV. Smaller campaigns that wouldn't have in the past been able to afford broadcast TV can run some advertising in some capacity. And groups and parties have become more savvy to it as well. And sometimes the political parties are running ad campaigns on behalf of a slate of candidates, which really wasn't happening back in the early nineties.

And now a single ad that, as you say, hits all the buttons, can turn a race right around?
TV is just an incredibly powerful medium, and if you produce an ad that's compelling and relevant"and credible"it can be very effective in moving public opinion and moving voters. People are getting information these days from a variety of sources"the Internet or cable, radio"but, still, there's nothing that approaches the power and the reach of broadcast television. That's why if your campaign, your candidate, or your cause doesn't have the financial resources to be on TV in a significant way, and your opponent does, you're not going to be successful. It's really that simple. Campaigns that are outspent on TV usually don't win.

Your firm worked on the Swift-boat campaign. Were you involved?
I wasn't. One of my partners handled it and I'm familiar, obviously, with the success of it. A lot of people forget that when that group started off they had no money"they were going to hopefully get enough money to run some cable ads in D.C. And then, of course, it demonstrates the power of the national [news] media once different reporters and cable news networks started running those ads. So many thousands of people across the country saw it and logged on to the Web site"I think they actually ended up spending twenty-five million dollars on paid advertising, which certainly wasn't the plan in the beginning.

In campaigns that you work on, how do you come up with the message?
There's quite a bit of research that goes into the development of the advertising. Whether it's polling or focus groups, there's testing. What do we want to say about our campaign? What's the most effective thing that we can say? Who's the best messenger? That's a big part. I've done about eight successful ballot measures in Maine. Ironic as it sounds, I actually helped pass the [Maine] Turnpike widening in 1997. In that campaign we found out the best messengers were EMTs and fire chiefs and the best message was safety. I'm a big believer in spending a lot of time in pre-interviewing people, going out in the field and talking to a number of different messengers that could be considered for TV and deciding how they'd be received. Sometimes the real people can come up with things that are a lot better and much more effective than what we'd write, so using them in their own words as messengers can be very compelling.

What are you working on now?
It's funny. You finish the election and you've worked hard on different campaigns and suddenly you're back at square one. A lot of it right now is pitching and meeting with prospective clients. I've met people thinking of running for governor in Florida and Pennsylvania. We've had a number of meetings with gubernatorial candidates and senate candidates for campaigns beginning two years from now, and it always surprises me how early this process starts.

All political candidates?
There's also a trend where more and more corporations and trade associations are contacting firms like mine, looking for similar tactics. They're realizing that their bottom line or their market share may be impacted negatively by action here in Washington or in a state capital somewhere. So they're saying, "Wow, we need to use the same tactics the candidates are using. We've got to be fast. We've got to have a clear message." It's very different than a lot of the image-enhancing advertising that Madison Avenue firms do. They need a firm that can turn an ad around quickly, get out their messages. They also appreciate that we're very familiar with the target audience that they're going after because we spend a lot of time with those folks.

Is there anyone in particular you're working with now?

I think I could say to you"and they're very sensitive, obviously, of their public disclosure"that there's a number of companies that have contacted us. Upcoming telecom reform in Washington, medical liability, and other big issues here in D.C. Obviously Social Security is another example.

Do you think Social Security will be the biggest issue in the next year or so? In terms of issue campaigns?
Yeah, I think right now that Social Security is one of the biggest public affairs campaigns that D.C. will see since the Clinton healthcare fight.