This is the story of a first-time congressional candidate hiring a first-time production team to create a low-budget campaign ad.
A cynic might roll his eyes and say, “What could go wrong?”
Well, everything went right. The online ad produced by two Michigan filmmakers went viral due to its documentary-style narrative and became one of the most popular ads of 2018 on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. On Tuesday, the candidate scored the biggest upset of the year in the nation’s primary elections.
The 28-year-old, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, defeated the 4th-ranked House Democrat, Joe Crowley, by a wide margin in New York’s 14th District, situated in the working-class New York City boroughs of the Bronx and Queens. Political observers give much of the credit to the ad, which was created by the Detroit-based team of Nick Hayes and Naomi Burton, known as Means of Production.
After all, earlier this year Ocasio-Cortez was a relative unknown and was being outspent by Crowley by an 8-1 ratio. Hayes and Burton created her ad on a budget of just $10,000 and the payoff was astounding. So, too, was the short timeline.
The duo established their video production firm on a full-time basis in March, were hired by Ocasio-Cortez a few weeks later, and shot the campaign ad in the streets of the Bronx in April. Within a day of its May 30 debut, the online spot had received 300,000 views and went viral heading into the election. On Tuesday night, Ocasio-Cortez had miraculously defeated a 10-term Democratic incumbent who had a shot at becoming Speaker of the House in the fall.
The story sounds more like a Hollywood movie than a real-life political saga. But the irony here is that Hayes and Burton showed that a candidate doesn’t need a Hollywood video production company or a team of expensive consultants and handlers. What the duo offered was an ideological connection, a like-minded approach that gave the candidate a production team who serve as true believers in her cause.
Both are members of the Detroit chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, devoted leftist activists who quit their PR/communications jobs in the corporate world to form Means of Production. Ocasio-Cortez was a Bernie Sanders campaign activist in 2016 who was running in the 14th District primary on an agenda of Medicare for all, tuition-free college education and a federal jobs guarantee.
Hayes and Burton (described by one publication as a “rag-tag” group of filmmakers) shot the candidate getting ready for work in her modest apartment, riding the subway, talking to people in the neighborhood. The script was based on Ocasio-Cortez’s day-by-day campaign message.
“This race is about people versus money,” the candidate says in the voiceover narration. “We’ve got people. They’ve got money.”
“After 20 years of the same representation, we have to ask, who has New York been changing for? Everyday gets harder for working families like mine to get by. The rent gets higher, health care covers less, and our income stays the same. It’s clear that these changes haven’t been for us and we deserve a champion. It’s time to fight for a New York that working families can afford.”
Crowley was portrayed as a corporate Democrat, a friend of Wall Street, though he is a progressive Dem and has relentlessly criticized President Trump.
If the Democrats win control of the House in November and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi steps aside from her leadership position, Crowley had been viewed as a leading choice to become speaker.
Even before the improbable election outcome of Tuesday night, the popularity of the ad and the praise for the spot in subsequent media attention had reportedly generated a flood of calls to Hayes and Burton from potential clients and activists. They’re preparing to work for several candidates across the country, in congressional and gubernatorial races.
The trajectory of events over the past two months is so remarkable that candidates and campaign managers may be asking themselves a basic question. Why pay huge sums of cash for slick consultants and production companies that pump out trite commercials when they can hire a small, passionate crew that can produce game-changing results?