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The Numbers Behind Obama's Negative Ad Campaign The Numbers Behind Obama's Negative Ad Campaign

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The Trail: 2012 Presidential News from the Field / Analysis

The Numbers Behind Obama's Negative Ad Campaign

President Obama smiles as he walks toward Marine One before departing the South Lawn of the White House on Tuesday.(AP Photo/Haraz N. Ghanbari)

photo of Beth Reinhard
July 12, 2012

Looking for a little hope and change from President Obama’s reelection campaign? Give it up.

The vast majority of the president’s television spending this week bashes Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, either over his business record, his position on abortion rights, or his tax plan.

Since April, just over half—about $27 million out of $51 million—of Obama’s television spending has been on negative ads, according to a GOP media tracker. But his campaign has taken an overwhelmingly negative turn at a time when the economic recovery is stalling, and it buttresses what the Republicans have been saying for months: The president’s overall strategy is to ruin Romney’s reputation, leaving voters without a viable alternative.

 

The multimillion-dollar blitz forced Romney onto the defensive on Thursday with a new television spot that demands, “When a president doesn’t tell the truth, how can we trust him to lead?"

An even greater share of Romney's ads since April have been negative, about $16 million of $24 million, according to a Democratic media tracker. By mid-day Thursday, the tracker said, Romney's new tough spot had replaced all the campaign's other ads on the air.

The reprisal comes amid concerns in Republican circles that Romney’s failure to aggressively respond to Obama’s attacks over the last month could leave voters with a negative and lasting impression. By law, Romney can spend only primary dollars until after the August nominating convention, even though he and the Republican Party have been raising general-election money like gangbusters. Romney’s team also expresses skepticism that negative ads from Obama and his allies are working, pointing to polls that show a deadlocked race and that the economy is voters’ paramount concern.

Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt rejected the notion that the president isn’t selling himself, noting that the campaign began airing $25 million in ads in May promoting his bailout of the auto industry, the death of terrorist Osama bin Laden and the end of the war in Iraq. LaBolt pointed out that the current ad criticizing Romney’s tax plan is “comparative" and touts the president’s goal to raise taxes on the wealthy to spare the middle class.

Obama is also airing a Spanish-language ad that promotes his health care overhaul starring Cuban-American talk show host Cristina Saralegui.

But a breakdown from the Republican media tracking source shows that ad amounted to less than 1 percent of the television time between Sunday and Tuesday—even before the Obama campaign had launched the spot contrasting their tax plans.

Obama’s “hope" campaign from 2008 is often mischaracterized as overwhelmingly positive. In addition to uplifting spots about the president’s vision for the future, it included many negative ads that yoked Republican nominee John McCain to the unpopular Bush administration. Naturally, there’s a stark contrast between a groundbreaking bid for the White House by a fresh-faced senator and a reelection effort by a sitting president saddled with a sour economy.

The contrast is best exemplified in two spots, one from 2007 and one from 2012, with nearly identical titles.

In the 2007 ad called “Believe," a not-yet-graying Obama, then an Illinois senator, speaks directly to the camera: “Every time I speak about my hope for America, the cynics in Washington roll their eyes. You see, they don’t believe we can actually change politics and bring an end to decades of division and deadlock."

He goes to on to claim he’s “brought Democrats and Republicans together to solve problems that touch the lives of everyday people."

Nearly five years later, an Obama campaign ad called “Believes" takes a more sinister tone: “Mitt Romney’s companies were pioneers in outsourcing U.S. jobs to low-wage countries." Another spot repeats the outsourcing line of attack and says, “Mitt Romney’s not the solution. He’s the problem." Still another Obama ad claims Romney opposes abortion even in cases of rape and incest, even though the former Massachusetts governor has stated he would allow those exceptions.

A day after Romney told Fox News’ Neil Cavuto, “If you’re responding, you’re losing," his campaign obviously decided it had no choice but to counterpunch.

“We see this as opening an offensive front on the president on the fundamental question of trust," said Stuart Stevens, a top Romney strategist, of the new ad. “What became apparent is that the president had gone so far with these false charges, it allows you to go back and question his fundamental qualities."

There are some signs that Obama's attacks are working. Priorities USA Action, a pro-Obama super PAC that has spent $10 million bashing  Romney’s former company, Bain Capital, on Wednesday touted polls that show favorable views of Romney declining in five swing states. The polls were conducted by Democratic firms. The ads feature former employees of struggling companies that were taken over by Bain, which made millions of dollars off the deals while the workers were sacked.

“What Romney thinks is an asset is his biggest liability," said Bill Burton, Priorities USA cofounder. “We’re seeing erosion in views of Romney’s character."

But the Romney team points to national polls, including the latest ABC News/Washington Post survey, which show a super-tight race and suggest the attacks aren’t as potent as Democrats claim.

“It’s clear that the attacks have failed to shift the race, despite their outspending us 3-1 in some states," said Stevens of the Romney campaign. “When the presidential campaign is not talking about his responsibility for the economy, he might as well be showing up at the World Series with a tennis racket."

To be sure, Obama’s attacks on Romney aren’t unprovoked. Tens of millions of dollars in television ads assailing his stewardship of the economy have been unleashed by the Romney campaign and allied groups that can collect unlimited donations.

In fact, Romney and the Republican Party substantially outraised Obama and the Democratic Party in June, suggesting the president may ultimately be outspent on the air. Romney announced a $106 million haul that month, leaving his campaign with a total of $160 million in the bank. The campaign has not disclosed how much of that is earmarked for the general election.

“We are only allowed to spend primary dollars from now through the convention," read a memo from the Romney campaign on Monday. “President Obama had no primary opponent, so could use all the money he raised for the primary against Gov. Romney. By contrast, Gov. Romney had to wage a long and expensive primary campaign using precious primary dollars that could not be replenished after he won."

But some political strategists say Romney’s failure to respond right away to broadsides against his tenure at Bain could leave him vulnerable in the fall. That’s what happened to Democratic nominee John Kerry in 2004, when he failed to respond immediately to attacks on his military service from a group called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. The lesson: Define yourself before your opponent does it for you.

“Romney is vulnerable on the Bain front," said Republican consultant Rick Tyler, whose super PAC pummeled Romney with anti-Bain ads that helped former House Speaker Newt Gingrich win the South Carolina primary in January. “There’s a large group of people who are disgusted with Obama, but they need some reason to hold onto to vote for Romney, and the Bain attacks speak to that.… Some voters are concerned about the capitalist side of the ledger that Romney is on."

Those anti-Romney ads were largely bankrolled by Las Vegas casino mogul Sheldon Adelson. He is now putting millions of dollars behind the Republican nominee.

More The Trail: 2012 Presidential News from the Field
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