Liuba Grechen Shirley, the long-shot Democratic challenger for New York’s 2nd Congressional District, has an improbable story, two enchanting children, and a snug century-old farmhouse — the perfect ingredients for a viral political ad in 2018.
On an impossibly humiday, an eight-person film crew crowded into her Long Island home, along with her campaign staff, her mother and a wilting menagerie of pets to create Shirley’s first professional video.
“I’m trying to make this look normal,” said Shirley, 37, while the Steadicam was rolling, 2-year-old Nicholas on her hip. “But it’s not normal. And it’s 700 degrees in here.”
Ten hours of shooting would eventually be winnowed to a two-minute, 45-second video, opening with an artful 90-second tracking shot through her home that, on its own, is three times the length of a typical TV spot. It’s an impressionistic portrait of her middle-class life: Nicholas on his hobby horse, sun glinting through kitchen windows, the campaign staff manning laptops in her toy-cluttered dining room. The candidate changes into heels as a swelling New Age soundtrack sweeps you into Americana images of her district, so many flags and hugs.
But this video was not created for TV. Instead, the ad (tag line: “This time it’s personal”) launched Aug. 15 via Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.
This is how a candidate introduces herself in 2018 — through videos with the narrative sweep of a short film, the intimate scale of a smartphone screen, and the DIY frugality of social media.
Candidate spots were once filmed in offices or on sets, narrated by stentorian-voiced actors, buffed with a hermetic Madison Avenue sheen. The new generation of digital ads celebrate the quotidian — homes, kitchens, even bathrooms. They showcase the earthy side of politics, tireless candidates pounding streets and doors. They emphasize feelings, tears, hugs and more hugs. They remind you of an ad for that character-driven Netflix series you’ve been meaning to check out.
Shirley had a lot riding on her $30,000 ad. As a first-time candidate in this crimson swath of Long Island, she needed to get her name and story out to voters and potential donors — not only regionally but perhaps nationally.
In the old days, which is to say a couple of election cycles ago, “you either had $3 million or you shouldn’t go up in New York,” said her political strategist Bill Hyers. Shirley didn’t have $3 million. But the right kind of digital ads allow candidates to launch themselves for far less — if they manage to go viral.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s “Courage to Change” video was viewed almost 1 million times before her upset victory over Rep. Joseph Crowley, D-N.Y., in the June primary, according to its creators; it has since crossed the 5 million mark. In the days immediately after the video’s release, she saw a tenfold increase in donations.
Shirley also scored a primary upset over a more experienced party leader, but she remains an undeniable long shot going into the general against 13-term GOP Rep. Peter King, who in 2016 won the district by 24 points. At the time of the shoot, Shirley had received minimal news coverage, most of it way back in May, when she successfully petitioned to get campaign funds allocated for child care.
She needed to make some noise.
“I’m not going to be happy with less than a million views,” said her ad creator Matt McLaughlin, standing in Shirley’s crowded kitchen. He has produced videos for Bill de Blasio and Cynthia Nixon, but it was his ad for Randy Bryce, the mustachioed Wisconsin ironworker hoping to flip retiring Speaker Paul Ryan’s House seat for the Democrats, that solidified McLaughlin’s credentials as a viral savant. The ad — a haunting violin-scored mini-film that opens with Bryce recounting his mother’s struggle with multiple sclerosis — became an immediate sensation last year from the moment comedian Chelsea Handler tweeted it.
That’s what Shirley wanted from her ad. “I want it to go viral,” she said; 4 million views was her goal.”And I want it to explain who I am — like the MJ Hegar ad.”
Ah, yes, “Doors.” The “Hamilton” of viral political ads.
In the 3 1/2-minute spot, Hegar — an Air Force vet and tattooed mom challenging an eight-term incumbent for a Texas congressional seat — recounts the helicopter crash she survived in Afghanistan and her stateside battle to lift restrictions on combat roles for women, while the camera swoops and swerves fluidly through chapters of her life. A taut guitar riff, loosely borrowed from “Gimme Shelter,” amps up the tension.
It’s fairly irresistible: Since its June release, the spot’s been viewed more than 5 million times. It helped Hegar — who remains a long shot against Rep. John Carter, R-Texas — raise $750,000 in 10 days, mostly from out of state.
Ultimately, Shirley’s video did precisely what she and her team hoped, reaching 921,000 voters in the first two weeks, primarily through Facebook.
It also helped attract the media attention that had been eluding her for months. “She’s Trying to Pull an Ocasio-Cortez. Her Target: Pete King” read the New York Times headline two days after the ad launched; the story noted that Shirley’s web spot evoked the Ocasio-Cortez one, with its “stirring music and polished editing. The FiveThirtyEight polling and prognostication website shifted New York’s 2nd District race from “solid Republican” to “likely Republican.” A granular distinction, but Shirley was over the moon.
Her entire career has been spent working for nonprofits. “My kids were 1 and 3 when I decided to run,” she said. She was standing on her sun porch, taking a lunch break from filming to hang out with her children, clad in wet bathing suits.
“Who in their right mind runs for elected office when their children are 1 and 3?” she laughed.
If only the camera had been rolling.
The Washington Post’s Nadine Ajaka contributed to this report.