A political advertising blitz in swing states such as Ohio, Florida and Virginia is on track to shatter records for spending as the two presidential candidates — and the groups that support them — mount aggressively negative campaigns to win over the relatively small number of voters who are truly undecided.
“It’s basically October in July,” said Erika Franklin Fowler, director of the Wesleyan Media Project, which tracks political ads. “It’s going to be every single solid block of time that there is will be filled with political ads. I’ve talked about 2010 as a record-breaking year for political ads, but 2012 will be a record-pulverizing year.”
With President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, virtually neck and neck in polls, experts say winning over those 10 to 20 percent of undecided voters could decide the race.
“Television matters,” said Peter Brown, assistant director of Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. “A lousy candidate with unlimited money won’t necessarily win. But a good candidate without money to buy TV ads will usually lose.”
There are not only more ads this year, they are predominantly negative and fueled by the once-illegal unlimited contributions allowed by the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court Citizen’s United decision and the growth of third-party groups flooding the airwaves with often negative messages about a candidate.
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While people tend to say they hate negative ads, experts say candidates and their supporters calculate that the danger of alienating voters is outweighed by the proven gains from tearing down an opponent.
“We know they respond to them,” said Brown. “If they didn’t work, candidates wouldn’t spend millions of dollars on them.”
Some of history’s most memorable ads have been negative and each had a strong impact on the race. Among them:
• Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1964 “Daisy” ad, depicting a little girl pulling petals off a flower just before a nuclear explosion, a reference to the suggestion by his Republican opponent, Sen. Barry Goldwater, that nuclear weapons be used in Vietnam.
• The Willie Horton ad broadcast during Republican Vice President George H.W. Bush’s campaign against Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, linking the Democrat to a weekend furlough program that freed a convicted murderer who then kidnapped a couple, stabbed the man and raped the woman.
• The “Swift Boat” ads challenging Democratic Sen. John Kerry’s war record in his unsuccessful 2004 bid to unseat President George W. Bush.
This year’s emphasis on negative ads so early in the campaign is a sharp change from even four years ago. Seventy percent of the presidential advertising on broadcast television and national cable was negative between Jan. 1 and April 22, 2012 — up from 9.1 percent during the same period in 2008, according to the Wesleyan Media Project’s analysis of Kantar Media/CMAG data.
Allegations of lies, questionable dealings and hidden assets have already surfaced in ads by Obama, Romney or outside groups this year. The Obama campaign unveiled an ad Saturday that had Romney singing “America the Beautiful” to headlines saying he shipped jobs to Mexico, India and China and stored millions of dollars in offshore accounts.
When asked to respond for this story, Obama’s Ohio press secretary, Jessica Kershaw, said, “Ohio voters deserve the truth on Romney’s record of opposing the auto rescue, outsourcing jobs to countries like China and Mexico, and pushing an economic philosophy that benefits the wealthy at the expense of the middle class. Romney cannot hide from his history as a corporate buyout specialist who outsourced jobs to China when he was CEO of Bain Capital.”
Romney’s Ohio campaign spokesman, Chris Maloney, responded that the campaign has “routinely illustrated” the policy goals Romney hopes to achieve as president and is receiving strong grassroots and financial support across the state. Maloney criticized Obama’s record, including stimulus spending the campaign says sent jobs overseas.
“President Obama now continues to spread dishonest attacks about Mitt Romney to distract from his failed record,” said Maloney. “Even though fact check after fact check have found his claims to be false, he continues to mislead the American people. It is no wonder that Americans have lost confidence in his leadership.”
Such back and forth by the candidates themselves is not unusual, but experts say the third-party groups supporting them — particularly the non-profits set up under IRS rules that allow their donors to remain secret — have upped the ante on the negative tone.
“Third-party advertising is more attack-driven and more deceptive than what the candidate’s sponsor,” said Kathleen Hall Jamison, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania and co-founder of Factcheck.org. “What we found was a higher level of deception in the non-disclosing groups as opposed to the groups that had disclosure (of donors).”
The massive spending by those groups — especially when the donor names remain secret — concerns some political scientists and campaign finance reform advocates.
“What we have is a group of millionaires and billionaires treating our elections as a political sandbox and it’s very dangerous to the health of our democracy,” said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, a watchdog group advocating campaign finance reform. “What happens is a relatively few number of extremely wealthy individuals are exercising disproportionate influence over our elections and potentially buying undue influence over government decisions.”
Ohioans, because they live in a critical swing state, are being fed snippets of the slugfest multiple times a day, every day, on their television screens.
In the Dayton media market between July 1 and July 12, the number of presidential political ad spots increased 73 percent compared to the same period during the 2008 presidential campaign, according to Ken Goldstein, president of Kantar Media/CMAG, a Washington, D.C., company that tracks ad buys. The 1,289 ad spots during that 12-day period rivaled the 1,038 that ran Sept. 1-12, 2008, a more traditional period for a campaign advertising barrage.
“Ohio is absolutely up there in terms of advertising,” said Goldstein.
Wells Fargo Securities tracked all political advertising spending at broadcast stations, including the presidential and congressional races, using Television Bureau of Advertising data between Jan. 1, 2011, and June 24, 2012. Of the $583.3 million in advertising, about 38 percent was for the presidential race and nearly a third for congressional races.
Political ad spending in two Ohio cities — Cleveland and Columbus — was out-sized for their media market share. Cleveland ranked second of the top five markets in absolute dollars spent, the Wells Fargo report found, just behind Los Angeles and ahead of New York City. Columbus ranked eighth.
“It’s a major source of revenue for media companies,” said Mark Caleb Smith, director of the Center for Political Studies at Cedarville University.
Most voters will get well-sick of political ads long before they go to the ballot box, said Jim Nathanson, a political consultant and owner James S. Nathanson and Associates.
“Ads do work, but they work on small populations,” said Nathanson. “These are people who do not tend to have strong opinions about what’s happening and don’t tend to spend a lot of time informing themselves about politics, government and how the world works.”
That group, which Smith estimates makes up 10 to 20 percent of voters, tend to be generally uninterested in politics and don’t have a lot of information about candidates, said Smith. Winning them over — and getting them to go vote — takes multiple repetitions of the political messages.
“These are people who are relying on advertising and some snippets of news information to construct their opinion,” said Smith. “They are not going to go look at voting records or fact checks because that is not how they gather information.”
He and other political scientists find it distressing that people are willing to form opinions based on a 30-second advertisement by a candidate or third-party group, especially when those ads can be misleading or untrue.
“The problem is that American voters are lazy,” said Paul Leonard, a Wright State University political science professor and former Dayton mayor. “If they hear something that doesn’t sound quite right on television, how many are going to spend the time researching that to see if it is true or false? We like to be spoon-fed through the television.”
Nathanson said part of the problem is there is no real punishment for ads that cross the line and very few are so clearly false that they would warrant a successful complaint before elections commissions.
“Unfortunately when you push the envelope, there is almost no cost involved, and I think that is outrageous,” Nathanson said. “The only way to make it costly is to give the government too much subjective control.”
Smith said people “need to be naturally suspicious of political advertising because they need to understand the motivations of the politicians running the ads.”
Smith said the history of negative ads and outright lies goes way back, citing the 1800 contest between President John Adams and Vice President Thomas Jefferson as an example. Adams accused Jefferson of being an atheist who would make it illegal to worship, while Jefferson’s supporters claimed Adams paid mistresses from England to cement his relationship with the monarchy, said Smith.
What’s different now is the huge sums of money and the pervasiveness of media, including the internet, that make the advertisements hard to miss, particularly in a battleground state like Ohio.
“Candidates tend to ignore non-battleground states,” said William Benoit, professor of communication studies at Ohio University.
Political analysts differ on exactly which states are fully in play, but Ohio, Florida and Virginia top every list. Pennsylvania, Nevada, Colorado, Iowa, Wisconsin, North Carolina and New Hampshire are also considered by many to be toss-ups.
Even in those states, there is a strong polarization of voters, leaving a relatively small percentage of people who are unsure how they will vote. But in politics, that small percentage is enough to trigger hundreds of millions of dollars in ads.
“The margin in a 50-50 race really matters,” said Fowler. “That’s why you’ll see a lot of ads in the battleground markets and you will continue to see a lot of ads through Election Day.”
Contact this reporter at (937) 225-7455 or lhulsey@DaytonDailyNews.com.