TV scene of €1bn battle of negative advertising

The race for the White House has seen viewers deluged by over a million TV ads, with little evidence that voters have been swayed, reports Jeanne Cummings

BETWEEN Sept 11 and Sept 17, after the two political conventions and as undecided voters began to tune in to the presidential campaign in earnest, President Barack Obama, Mitt Romney, and the outside groups that support them spent $20m on television advertisements across 10 battleground states.

Last week, their last chance to influence voters, the two sides spent $30m — in Ohio alone.

Since the start of the general-election campaign, the two sides have spent an incredible $1,057,276,151 on TV advertising. That’s nearly half a billion dollars more than was spent during the 2008 general election, according to a Hotline analysis of advertising-spending data.

So, after more than $1bn spent on more than one million presidential campaign ads — the vast majority negative — the race enters its final days in the same way both campaigns predicted it would a year ago: too close to call.

To Republicans, the even race shows that super political action committees and other groups successfully blunted President Obama’s cash advantage over challenger Romney. To Democrats, it’s a triumph for an incumbent subjected to roughly $208m in attacks ads amid historically weak economic ratings.

To noncombatants, it’s the latest evidence that 2010 court rulings permitting corporations, unions, and wealthy individuals to spend unlimited sums on elections are escalating a political arms race that shows no signs of abating.

“The campaigns talk about micro-targeting; it’s more like carpet-bombing,” said John G. Geer, a political scientist at Nashville-based Vanderbilt University who has studied negative advertising. “It’s a Catch-22. If one side spends it, the other side can’t not spend it.”

Lessons learned from this year’s presidential campaign may only exacerbate the money race four years from now, said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Centre at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

“Candidates, before they decide to run, will cultivate billionaires” who can donate to friendly super-PACs, she said of the groups that take unlimited contributions. “I think you are going to see candidates coming into the campaign with billionaires in tow.”

Between April, when Romney clinched his Republican primary victory, and Oct 28, there were 1,086,162 ads aired in the presidential race, with Democrats financing 568,269 compared with 517,893 backed by pro-Romney forces, according to New York-based Kantar Media’s CMAG.

A majority of the ads — 87% — carried a negative tone, the data shows, compared with 13% positive.

The president’s re-election campaign dominated the Democratic commercials — 87% overall, with 84% of those negative. On the Republican side, Romney’s campaign controlled just 36% of the ads while 52% were the product of super-PACs and other groups. And of all the Republican commercials, 91% were attack ads.

It’s a ratio that some political strategists say wasn’t helpful to Romney or effective with voters.

“It was way too much, way too early, way too negative, and way too long,” Mark McKinnon, a media adviser to former President George W Bush, said in an email about the super-PACs. “I’d say 95% of all outside group spending is wasted. It’s all negative, most of it cheaply produced and it just becomes a wall of white noise. Voters aren’t stupid.”

Ultimately, voters will determine whether the television air war waged by the outside groups represents a savvy new tactic or a squandering of cash, particularly by a handful of billionaires who sunk millions into an effort to unseat Obama. Las Vegas casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson and his wife top that ranking, having donated $53m to super-PACs backing Romney and other Republicans.

For the entire 2012 campaign, the Center for Responsive Politics estimates that outside groups including American Crossroads, a group formed with guidance from former Bush adviser Karl Rove, and the US Chamber of Commerce, a business-backed organisation putting money into congressional races, will spend $1bn — or $276m more than spent in the 2008 elections.

Before Election Day, some conclusions are already drawn.

The top pro-Romney super-PAC, Restore Our Future, was instrumental in helping the former Massachusetts governor capture his party’s nomination against lesser-funded rivals.

When former House Speaker Newt Gingrich was surging in Iowa in December, Restore Our Future sponsored $18.7m in negative ads against him. In January, as former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum gained momentum, the group unleashed $21.3m in attacks to block his rise.

A broader roster of super-PACs got into the race after Santorum withdrew from the primaries in early April, and the Obama campaign invested millions in an early run of attack ads aimed at the prospective Republican nominee.

With Romney’s campaign off the air and low on funds, Americans for Prosperity, a free-market advocacy group, funded in part by energy billionaires David and Charles Koch, came to his defence. When that group went off the air, American Crossroads stepped in — a pattern that continued throughout the summer.

Tim Phillips, head of Americans for Prosperity, said his organisation intends to spend about $80m in an effort to “make sure the campaign focus is on Obama’s handling of the economy, and that’s been achieved here”.

While ads criticising Obama prevented the president from gaining an insurmountable lead over Romney, they didn’t sink his candidacy. They also did little to prop up the Republican.

Romney’s image pushed into positive range for the first time after the Oct 3 Denver debate, in which both sides agree he outperformed the president and undercut the images drawn of him in Obama’s attack ads.

“They could have established Romney as a far more credible, relateable, and respected candidate” if the outside groups and Romney campaign had invested earlier in more positive, biographical ads, said Peter Hart, a Democratic polling specialist.

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