The Runner-Up Episode 4: I Approve This Message

Clay Aiken adds another 2nd place ribbon to his collection on the season finale of The Runner-Up.
The Runner-Up (Photo: Lightbox Entertainment / Esquire)

In the season finale of Esquire’s The Runner-Up, we see the final days of Clay Aiken’s congressional campaign and learn the harsh truth about half-truths.

The season finale of The Runner-Up picks up in the last two weeks of Clay Aiken’s campaign for the second congressional district of North Carolina. Along with the gay marriage issue and iffy/absent support from the DCCC, the North Carolina senate race between democrat Kay Hagan and republic challenger Thom Tillis was dominating political attention. The race was the most expensive in history–more than $100 million spent–and was a determining factor in which party would control the Senate. As a result, the voter turnout was expected to be much, much higher than in most mid-term elections.

As if there wasn’t enough political advertising happening during the Senate campaign, Clay’s campaign was able to scrape together enough nickels for one ad buy. The question: should the ad be positive or negative? Tucker, the communications director, wants to go negative to reiterate how incumbent Renee Ellmers has failed her district. Clay says he would rather do a positive ad, one that promotes why people should vote for him rather than against Ellmers. I think Clay’s instinct is right here: not voting for Ellmers is not the same as voting for Clay, as there is the option of not voting at all. Ellen is the tie-breaker and the campaign decides to go negative. Here’s the ad:

The other problem with doing a negative campaign: accusations will be scrutinized. The group contacted Tucker shortly after the ad aired to follow the logic trail of some of their claims. That did not work in the campaign’s favor.

Election day arrives and Clay heads to his polling station as the last stop of his bus tour. Unfortunately, the real last stop was a mile or so from the station, as the bus stalled out on the road. Sad trombone. As the votes come in, there is about five minutes when Clay is in the lead before the rest of the mostly-republican district gave Ellmers another term as their representative.

It would be easy to say that Aiken was over his head, or that his ad was a misfire, or the inability to fundraise was what caused him to lose. I disagree, and suspect that had his primary opponent Keith Crisco advanced1 the outcome would have been the same. Perhaps not as lopsided as the 59/41 outcome, but certainly not a win for the democrat. The incumbency advantage is real and nearly impossible to overcome. Had this been an open seat race, Aiken or Crisco may have stood a chance. However, it comes down to acting like an incumbent, which is antithetical to the “new voice in Washington” campaign Aiken was trying to run.

Although it was nine months of hard work, uncomfortable situations, and a less-than-ideal outcome, I’m glad Aiken agreed to participate in this documentary. If you haven’t checked in with The Runner-Up, you should take an afternoon and watch it.

  1. And, y’know, not died.  

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About Mike McComb 1219 Articles
Mike has been writing about TV online since 2008, when he started the blog WTF Little House on the Prairie? The blog was a project to practice writing about television analytically prior to getting an MA in Television-Radio-Film from Syracuse University, or as he likes to call it "TV Camp." After a lengthy stint at TVLatest, Mike wanted to launch a site that brought in classic TV, diamonds in the rough, and the shows everybody watches. E-mail: