In Final Negative Ad Blast, Reward Could Trump Risk

National Journal

Even for a campaign marked by bare-knuckled politics, the presidential race’s final week has taken an unusually nasty turn.

The sharpest—and, at times, least accurate—blows have come from Mitt Romney. The Republican presidential nominee this week released a new Spanish-language ad linking President Obama to despotic Latin American leaders Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro. It began running almost simultaneously with a new ad that reprised the debunked criticism that Obama had “gutted” welfare reform and another in which Romney erroneously implied that automakers Chrysler and General Motors were shipping jobs to China.

Obama’s allied super PAC, meanwhile, has reverted to its toughest attack of the general election, a minute-long spot that recounts the story of Bain Capital closing a local manufacturing plant. Obama’s campaign itself has adopted a softer approach—deploying a new ad that highlights Republican Colin Powell’s endorsement—but it has also rolled out a new spot that renews criticism of Romney’s “47 percent” remarks.

The controversy that follows the new round of ads could alienate more voters than they persuade, upsetting people fed up with the tone and misleading substance of the campaigns. But even with an electorate desensitized by months of advertising, they represent the last, best chance for either campaign to pull wavering voters into their camp. In a race poised to be historically close, the possible reward could trump the risk.

The last ads of a campaign are usually the most difficult to choose, according to GOP strategist John Brabender, and most campaigns usually have a desire to find a novel angle to use for the closing argument. But more often than not, he said, they revert to the messages that worked best during the campaign.

“They’re all looking that final sort of silver bullet,” said Brabender, who worked for Rick Santorum's campaign. “But what they do is go through everything new and say, ‘There’s no silver bullet there, let’s go back through the bullet that at least wounded somebody.’ ”

The sharpest messages come amid the highest volume of advertising yet this campaign, with both campaigns and their allied outside groups emptying their bank accounts on ads. According to a study from the Wesleyan Media Project, the campaigns and outside groups aired nearly 100,000 ads from Oct. 22 to Oct. 29 alone—and more than a million the entire campaign. The deluge makes cutting through to voters especially difficult without running an ad that leaves a mark.

“I think having something that emotional and memorable is important, especially when the environment is such that there are literally thousands of ads folks are being barraged with right now,” said Bill Burton, cofounder of Priorities USA Action. The “Coffin” ad his group is re-airing in the race’s homestretch was its most successful of the campaign, earning more than 2 million YouTube views alone.

Romney’s last-minute focus on the auto companies, a topic that has hung like a lead weight around Romney’s neck since he opposed the 2008-09 auto bailout, has a clear target: white-working class men, in particular the union members who work at the auto plants. And Michael Podhorzer, the AFL-CIO’s political director, says he thinks he knows why: Romney’s inability to break through in the state is due largely to his unpopularity among union members.

In a memo from the organization, Podhorzer said the AFL-CIO’s internal polling shows Obama earning 57 percent of the union vote in Ohio—almost identical to the 59 percent he received four years earlier. Without union voters, many of whom are the white blue-collar workers who have otherwise abandoned the president in droves the last four years, the president would be losing Ohio.

“We’re being ferociously approached by the Romney campaign with these ads—hundreds of millions have been spent in these states,” Podhorzer told National Journal. “So holding our own in those states is a pretty good accomplishment.”

But auto ads have also provoked controversy. The suggestion that Chrysler and GM are going to outsource production of their vehicles to China drew a blunt rebuke from both companies, which called the Romney campaign’s claim false. Local newspapers in Ohio and Michigan agreed, and the Obama campaign said it has begun running its own TV ad hitting back at the charge.

Whether Romney’s ads will be effective despite the blowback is a matter of disagreement among political experts. According to Brabender, campaigns can be “more aggressive” in the last week, because the media and the public don’t scrutinize them as much. But that sentiment would seem to belie the negative coverage Romney has received.

Officials with the Obama campaign depict Romney’s ads as a desperate, last-minute attempt to swing Ohio, where polls show the president slightly ahead, into his column.

For supporters of the former governor, however, it’s a worthwhile final attempt to win the state and the presidency. “The mass advertising is geared toward getting a very small number of people to make up their minds,” said Curt Steiner, a Columbus-based GOP strategist. “They’re not too worried about quote-unquote blowback.”

Or, alternatively, it might fire up the conservative base that Romney is depending on to turn out. Otherwise, all the controversial ads in the world won’t make a difference.

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