Campaign ad-makers, particularly those who dabble in the dark arts, can appear in the imaginations of their political opponents as Lex Luthor or Darth Vader.
In one of the most discredited ads of the 2012 race, the Mitt Romney campaign accuses President Obama of encouraging welfare freeloaders.
The sinister mastermind behind these spurious spots? A rare interview with Ashley O’Connor, the campaign’s director of advertising, revealed an approachable, 38-year-old redhead from small-town New Jersey who studied pre-med at a women’s liberal arts college.
Unlike her buttoned-up boss, who struggles to make voters feel like he can relate, O’Connor is immediately personable. She jokes about her convention credentials covering up the spilled salad dressing on her blouse and about her 3-year-son’s LEGOs on her office floor back in Boston.
Stuart Stevens, a Romney adviser and one of the best known political “Mad Men,’’ is widely assumed to be responsible for producing the campaign’s televised images. But O’Connor is actually the lead ad-maker on the Romney team, the one spending hours in the editing room. Stevens hired her right out of the career counseling center at Mount Holyoke College, where she was one of the few card-carrying Republicans.
O’Connor has worked for Stevens on and off for the last 15 years, helping to design ads for former President Bush, former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt, among many others.
“As the director of advertising, I don’t think it’s my job to make news,” said O’Connor, who talked about her low profile in the lobby of the Tampa hotel, where the Romney team is staying during the convention. “My job is to implement a plan, and nobody knows the plan until it hits TV.”
O’Connor did make news at a Tuesday forum hosted by ABC News and Yahoo, where she called the welfare spot “our most effective ad.” She explained, “It’s introducing information to voters they didn’t know before.”
The information is misleading, however, and Democrats suspect its effectiveness lies in playing to the worst instincts of some white, working-class voters.
The ad says that the Obama administration gutted work requirements in the landmark welfare reform law signed by former President Bill Clinton. “Under Obama’s plan, you wouldn’t have to work and you wouldn’t have to train for a job. They just send you your welfare check.”
The fact-checking website Politifact called the ad “Pants on Fire’’ wrong, and the Washington Post gave the ad four Pinnochios. “It’s simply not true,’’ said FactCheck.org. In reality, the administration proposed granting the states waivers from the law’s work requirements in order to give them more flexibility in designing their own work rules, but it did not remove work as a condition for getting benefits.
O’Connor stands by her work.
“It’s a strong ad that holds the president responsible for his actions and gets us back to talking about the issues,” she said. “By no means,’’ she added, is there any racial undercurrent. “We’re trying to reach undecided voters who supported Obama in 2008 and don’t think he lives up to his promises.”
Democrats say the ads are fueled by stereotypes of black “welfare queens,’’ as once described by Ronald Reagan in his 1976 presidential race, though there are no images like that in the ads.
“Romney has a lead with white men and this seems to be an effort to leverage their economic fears in ways that are designed to increase his lead with that base constituency,” said Democratic consultant Steve McMahon, who advised former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential bid. “To some that may sound perfect legitimate and appropriate, but to a Democrat like me, it sounds racially coded.”
In a sign that the ad worries the Obama campaign, it has produced two spots trying to knock it down. And in a broader reflection of a super-tight race, Obama has aired numerous attack ads, including ones that distorts Romney’s record on abortion rights.
In one widely publicized ad produced by the Priorities USA Action super PAC, a man blames Romney for his wife’s death from cancer after closing the steel plant where he worked. The Obama campaign claimed to have no knowledge of the ad, even though it had once deployed the man in a campaign conference call with reporters.
Stevens and Beth Myers, another top Romney adviser who led his vice presidential search, are trying to raise O’Connor’s national profile.
“She has an unusual left brain and right brain combination in that she’s incredibly well organized and very creative,” Stevens said of his protege. “She also has a no-whining work ethic. Everybody on the campaign loves her.”