Americans think too much money is being spent on the presidential campaign and most back limits on how much candidates are allowed to spend, a survey showed today.
The poll came as front-runner Barack Obama adopted a quiet, calm and reflective tone as he became the first presidential candidate in 16 years to air a 30-minute primetime “infomercial” on US TV networks.
The commercial is thought to have cost his campaign more than $3.2m (€2.5m) as the presidential election hits a record $2.4bn (€1.8bn), according to the non-partisan Centre for Responsive Politics – by far the most expensive in history.
The USA Today/Gallup poll showed almost three-quarters of those surveyed thought too much money was being spent on the election and almost a third thought it ought to be mandatory for candidates to accept federal funds, reducing the cost.
But this did not stop more than 20% of American households watching Mr Obama’s prime-time commercial, according to preliminary ratings by Nielsen.
In the top 56 local TV markets, the Illinois senator’s message was watched in 21.7% of households as it drew more viewers than most prime time programmes.
Ratings were even higher in key battleground states: 29% watched in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; 28% watched in West Palm Beach and Fort Pierce, Florida; and 27.2% watched in Greensboro/ High Point/ Winston Salem, North Carolina.
But, as the New York Times asked, “how much is too much?”
The newspaper’s political blog, The Caucus, said: “With a heavy-handed style of filmmaking devised to pull at heart strings as Mr Obama ticked through the commercial’s hard-luck stories, it risked seeming manipulative.”
But it added that the message was largely in-keeping with Mr Obama’s “strategic imperative” to “make voters comfortable with the idea of him in the Oval Office while at the same time presenting him as a candidate who can connect with everyday, middle-class voters”.
It said Mr Obama “gave a new meaning to the word ’infomercial’ and, for that matter, to all notions of political advertising”.
And it went on: “As in his speech in Berlin and his stadium nomination speech last summer, Mr Obama’s campaign was again practising its brand of big-event politics with this infomercial: Taking over a huge chunk of the television dial in an effort to make a closing sale with an audience that was likely to be well into the millions.
“And like the gambits before it, the advertisement held risks just by definition of what it was: A giant financial outlay that made Mr Obama almost unavoidable to television viewers who are by now weary from all these many months of politicking.”
The New York Daily News said Mr Obama seized the “media real estate” with a “polished pitch” as he “effectively knocked on every door in the nation”.
“Politically, it was a high-definition approach to something all campaigns strive to do at the end – rally the base, but also win over the ever-dwindling pool of undecided voters,” it said.
“Wednesday night was just the five-million-dollar (€3.8m) cherry on top, dangled at a time when undecided voters are known to be not just shopping for candidates, but making up their minds.
“If there is a risk, it is a slight one: that Obama has pressed too hard with his paid media onslaught, to the point of turning people off.
But that’s a worry every politician – especially Republican John McCain – would love to have right about now.“
Writing in the Washington Post, style columnist Tom Shales said: “Obama fired the final salvo in the great battle of images that is the 2008 presidential campaign.”
It was “an elegant combination of pictures, sounds, voices and music designed not so much to sell America on Barack Obama as to communicate a sensibility”.
He went on: “It was the easiest thing in the world, watching the skilfully edited hodgepodge put together by his campaign, to picture Obama as president.”
The Los Angeles Times added that it was “not merely a tactical decision to carpet-bomb millions of Americans in pursuit of a few thousand undecided voters who can dictate the outcome of the presidential campaign”.
“It offered even the swiftest channel-flipper the chance to see Obama looking presidential, helping to condition voters to that possibility,” it said.
The McCain campaign was less complimentary.
Spokesman Tucker Bounds said: “As anyone who has bought anything from an infomercial knows, the sales-job is always better than the product. Buyer beware.”