As reporters prepared their stories in a spacious tent in packed Grant Park on November 4, 2008, giant televisions broadcast the election results and, on commercial breaks, one particular ad again and again: "For 20 years, Barack Obama followed a preacher of hate," it began. "Barack Obama: Too Radical, Too Risky," it closed.
The ad had been airing since late October, fueled by a surge of small-donor money that purchased all the available ad time through election day, after the ads had served their purpose. The National Republican Trust PAC spent more than $7 million airing the spot in states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Missouri, and Wisconsin; at times, it had more cash to put behind its buys in those states than did the McCain campaign itself.
The Florida-based Republican consultant who made the ad, Rick Wilson, described it as a last-ditch effort to rally a key set of voters — the "ethnic Catholic median male" — enthusiastically behind McCain.
The ad did succeed in rallying the party's base: "People were incredibly excited about it. The money roared in because of that ad," said Wilson. Indeed, the PAC — unlike this year's SuperPACs — was funded entirely by limited, small-dollar contributions.
But while Wilson said he thinks the ad had some effect, it hardly proved a silver bullet against Obama.
"That ad launched into the teeth of three very negative trends for the GOP: the markets had tanked, McCain's campaign was collapsing and the American press was so deeply in love with Barack Obama that if they'd found a dead girl in the trunk of his car, they'd have shrugged it off. Everything was excused, every sin forgiven," said Wilson.
He also said he wonders whether today's swarming social media climate wouldn't have given it a better ride.
"If Twitter had existed to the scope that it does now and this new constant campaign environment, it might have been a very different thing," he told BuzzFeed. He also wishes he had known an Obama friend's alleged offer to pay for Jeremiah Wright's silence. "It would have been the greatest follow-up ad of all time."
Instead, though, McCain publicly criticized the ad, in Wilson's view demoralizing Republicans who wanted to see that harsh assault on Obama.
"It just sent the final signal that McCain wasn't in htis fight for real," said Wilson.
And now, Wilson says, the notion that Jeremiah Wright could sink Obama is a mere fantasy.
"At the end of the day right now, I still think he's crazy, I still think Barack Obama lied about the relationship — but it's baked in the cake," Wilson said. "This is now not going to move voters as it did then."
"It's an article of faith among Republicans and most voters that Barack Obama and Jeremiah Wright had a long relationshp. It's not new information," he said. "The shock of the new is what moves people."