Monday, April 23, 2012

Air War: Competing Presidential Campaign Ads

We're going to look at the latest videos from the dueling Romney and Obama campaigns. Today is chosen at random and we'll look at the most recent ads from each candidate and their Super PACs to see what they're trying to tell you.

What you see above is "Romney's World View"--it's the Super PAC "Priorities USA" and it's pro-Obama.

Romney's Super PAC is still re-tooling: their last Ad is anti-Santorum and it's off the air. Instead I am going for the latest RNC ad: "From Hope to Hypocrisy: The Senator Who Became a Sellout."

And here's the latest from Mitt and Barack themselves:

Mitt Romney: President Obama's Measure of Progress

Barack Obama: President Obama Celebrates Earth Day

The Ads
With the exception of Mitt Romney's World View (the Priorities USA Obama Super PAC attack ad) none of these are especially interesting in and of themselves--but taken as a whole we can see where, for this limited period of time, the campaigns stand.

Team Romney
Both Team Romney ads have a similar theme: trying to hang the president on his own words. In the case of the RNC's "Hope to Hypocrisy" we see a message that contrasts Obama's thundering promise (2008) not to have lobbyists in his White House with his record--a bunch of lobbyists. It touches on his (lack of) transparency on who he met with, and when--and it has Anderson Cooper and some other talking heads using the h-word ("hypocrisy") to beat him up on it.

Romney's own "Measure of Progress" has Obama saying (2008) about how they, the Democrats, measure progress (you have extra money to help pay the bills). It then uses text over various pictures to show the decrease in jobs and unemployment rates. It notes, specifically, that the lost jobs will be double what fills the North Carolina convention center where the DNC will meet. This is all done over a driving frantic drum-beat  which is, again, punctuated by Obama's soaring oration.

Both Romney ads are over a minute long making them "narrative-style" ads rather than media-saturation high-punch attack ads.

Team Obama
Romney's World View goes for the guts with the Romney Money-Shot. It was a photo-op for Bain Capital which showed Romney and his team of Corporate Raiders Investors with, erm, money stuffed in their clothes--Mitt, front-and-center, smiling somewhat evilly. It uses the attack-ad female voice-over and shifts the filter to green for quick-cut close-ups on the dollar bill Romney is handing to his buddy. It talks about how he paid very low taxes and will cut his further--while cutting benefits for the (elderly) rest of us. It ends with "If he wins, we lose." The sound is a fairly sedate track with a few low-key ominous chords thrown in for the quick cuts.

On the other hand, Obama's ad is a little bit of sunny education about Earth Day--it has some history about it. It trumpets what we've done (more green jobs, etc.) It mentions reduction on our need for foreign oil and shows heart-lifting pictures of clean skies, American flags, and gleaming solar panels. The wind-power windmill shot makes certain to put an actual worker in the frame presumably climbing a tower to fix something (and get paid). I suspect this is a created picture and not a real one.

I looked "one down" to see if I could get a for-real Obama attack ad--but, no--not really. There's a Joe Biden spot encouraging us to turn out since Romney will have a deluge of negative ads and the only antidote is "us" out there pounding the pavement talking up Obama in our own voices. It was kinda an attack ad--but not really: it's more a "come and volunteer" ad.

Both Obama spots end with the rising-sun O meaning it'll be morning in America ... when he's elected again.

The Earth Day ad is long--but Romney's World View is 30 seconds and, honestly, very coherent for a quick-hit attack ad.

What Does It Mean?
Right now Obama has a substantial cash advantage over Romney (although the Super PACs make it more equal). If the election were held today it would be close. Obama leads in the polls but only by 2-3%. People "following history" say his approval rating needs to break 50%. Right now it's 2% away from that--so it seems easy--but it's been stubborn there and Romney is going to erode it (if the economy does pick up that'll help it--but either way, it's going to be tight).

This means that, from this point on, the teams have to refine their messages quickly and specifically. Let's look at the specifics:

Team Romney
Strategically Romney has a few challenges.
  1. On the message front, Romney has it easy. his story is simple: Obama has failed the economy. He did not create the downturn--he just made it worse. His slogan and website is "Obama Isn't"          
  2. Secondly he must shore up the base. He isn't great at this: "The Romney campaign continues to leave many evangelical voters feeling a bit out of sorts. It seems more and more the Romney campaign calculus is that the campaign will get the evangelical vote without much effort." Romney, however, has the whole GOP establishment behind him--so he's good on that count.
  3. He must woo Latinos and women enough to cut into Obama's dominance there. Rubio is working on an alternate DREAM act--and Romney just needs to Etch-a-Sketch a little and he can turn on his and Ann Romney's charisma. This is not to discount Latinos or women as stupid though--Romney's whole campaign thus far has been designed to make this outreach possible (he has taken heat all over the place for being a moderate squish). He just has to execute his plan and hope people believe him.
Team Obama                                                                                  

 Team Obama has some advantages--but they have a harder time in some areas too. Here's how they look:
  1. The economy still isn't great and there are signs of trouble on the horizon. Obama will do everything he can think of to stimulate the economy but at this point it's largely out of his hands. If he can use an executive order against gas-price speculation to get fuel prices down, though, that'll help.
  2. Obama needs to mobilize the youth vote and get his demographics to turn out. He is hugely dependent on the ground game and so needs a very large organization. Money alone can buy ads--but not feet. Consider that Florida--a razor thin state at best--could sway based on the Zimmerman / Trayvon Martin case. If central-Florida blacks vote in larger than usual numbers almost all of them will vote Obama. In the central Florida "cow corridor" that could sway the whole country. On the other hand it could go the other way too, right?
  3. Obama has had some trouble finding a specific message and slogan. He can't have bi-partisanship. He can't heal the nation--Hope and Change are out the window. His options are:
  • Fairness: Millionaires gotta pay their fair share. The GOP will protect them! Painting Romney as Mr. 1% is crucial to this. And it polls well. The downside is that "fairness" will not fix the economy. This is a dangerous hill to fight on--it's a winning battle but may not be a winning war.
  • Senior Scaring: The GOP budget plans cut entitlements (which they have to). This is dangerous for anyone not incumbent to try so ... hey? Good ground for Obama. If Obama can hold the Kerry states he can win with Florida. Florida is a senior state. This could be a winning battle for the whole war--assuming they can tie Romney to the Ryan budget and not produce a damaging budget themselves.
  • Liberal Agenda: Obama has it easy with Latinos and women--the GOP has made some serious miss-steps there. Where the GOP has to do damage control, Obama just needs to let things stand and give some minor lip-service. But this isn't a cross-demographic campaign. This, again, could play out in Florida. But it's no sure thing.
How the Ads Work

The Ad war is just getting started--but we can see this her is the plan: Romney wants to talk about the economy and (almost) nothing but. He feels that Obama's own words are powerful here--and he's right: using the candidate's in-context own-words against him is not only the high-road but it's reasonably convincing. That is, unless the economy is doing well enough in November ...

Obama, however, plays the 1% card on one hand and goes happy (Green Jobs! Heal the Planet! Earth Day) on the other. I don't think that Obama's base--whatever they may say--is really against him all that strongly. Yes, a lot of people are disappointed--but expectations for Obama were so over the top that was inevitable. I suspect that part of Obama's positive message-strategy is that he wants to keep his favorable numbers up under Romney's onslaught. Going positive is a way to do that so long as you can hit back.

So there you have it:
  1. Romney: All offense on the economy
  2. Obama: Split strategy going Fairness and Base-Baiting
What Do I Think?
These are all test-fires and early ones. We have not seen really damaging ads (Mormon Attack, Ayers/Wright/Etc.). I would think that those will wait until someone starts losing for real. Risking a super-negative attack is, well, risky. Romney has seen his favorables plummet when he went nuclear and he knows it could happen again--especially since people like Obama. Similarly, Obama knows that saying things about Mormons will backfire: you only do that in a desperate case of need.

No one is that desperate right now.

I also think that of all the ads up there, the best is Obama-PAC's Anti-Romney. The use of the damaging photo (exclusively) with some green-framed cuts edges towards sophisticated (it's a tight ad) whereas the RNC ad is fairly hard hitting it has a specific issue that if people are not convinced that Obama's policies made the economy worse--of course that's what Romney would say--the first part that everyone agrees on (that Obama didn't cause the down-turn) is pretty bad for the Republicans: it plays into excusing Obama for the still-hated Bush's missteps (polling shows people still blame Bush--Romney knows that--that's why he's taking this line of attack).

If I had to guess I would assume that given that Obama's advantage is so minimal, we will see the economy drive the war-strategy. If Spain doesn't collapse--if gas prices come down--then around the time of the convention Romney will need to change his approach. On the other hand, if the economy goes bad then Obama's favorable ratings will drop and Romney will pull ahead. At that point they will need to go with the "He looks like the guy who fired you" tactic. Or worse.

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