Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The Bain Game: Are The Ads Working?

A narrative is shaping up that Team Obama's deluge of attack ads on Romney, launched in swing-states with large buys, are working:
At this point, Obama is the clear winner in the ad wars. Among swing-state voters who say the ads have changed their minds about a candidate, rather than just confirmed what they already thought, 76% now support the president, vs. 16% favoring Romney.
Now, keep in mind that while "almost no one has changed their minds" that's not the point--this election will be won on the backs of so-called swing-voters and turn-out amongst the base. If many voters who are susceptible to having their opinions changed are being convinced? That's bad news for whichever side is on the receiving end.
The Romney campaign's response so far has been muted. The campaign has pushed back against Obama's attacks largely through press releases and dismissive comments, but they have yet to invest serious ad money to directly combat the hardening narrative.
Here's an example Ad, "The Problem" which we'll look at briefly.

The Ad
"The Problem" is a 33 second attack spot that is designed (at around 30 seconds) for saturation air-play. It opens with Romney saying saying that the Chinese are taking our jobs and he's not gonna let that happen. The narrator then jumps right in saying "he made a fortune letting it happen." It shows headlines and articles about how Bain Capital was a pioneer in outsourcing to many companies--including China. Mitt Romney, it concludes, is not the solution: he's the problem.

The ad is spare, reasonably well measured, and doesn't dip into dramatics to make its points. Whether it is true or not, it's confident and comes across as credible. As swing voters are, to a significant degree, blue-collar white males who are worried about losing their jobs (especially to outsourcing) it's well targeted.

Right now Obama is up in most of the swing states--including the lynch-pin: Ohio. While, yes, it's early to count even a single chicken, this is worrying to some.

What's The Problem?
The cause-for-concern is that this represents an "unanswered blow" against Romney similar to how the Swift Boat attacks ate into Kerry's electoral share. Basically, the thinking is: if you don't repudiate the attacks early, and often--and hit back hard--they can do real damage. This also plays into the narrative that Romney is only willing to "go nuclear" on other Republicans and will treat Obama with kid-gloves ("He's a nice guy--he's just in over his head"). This has echoes of the McCain campaign which is still a painful recollection for many Republicans.

While Team Romney certainly isn't panicking, it seems they aren't doing much ... of anything. Perhaps the plan is to conserve money and power for a blitzkrieg later in the game? Here's a quote:
But on Monday’s “America’s Newsroom,” Fox News’s Brit Hume suggested that there might be a reason behind the Romney campaign’s passivity: they want to wear the Obama campaign out and unload on them with one crushing attack.
But ...
“That is the strategy they seem to be employing at this stage, not that they are not answering some of these ads, they are,” he continued. “But you do have to be concerned if you’re a Republican strategist that this effort to mark Romney as a corporate raider and so on may be telling in some way."
Indeed, if Team Obama gets to "introduce" Romney to a lot of people, when later comes Team Romney might wish it had a second chance to make a first impression. So they're upping their game.

The Counter Punch
They're going to call Obama a liar!
In a conference call Monday morning, senior staff said Romney's surrogates would stop shying away from the word "lie" in responding to Democrats' attacks on his business record, and plan to go on TV to call Obama a "liar," the source said.
 Hot Air is glad he's doing something--but:
I hope it works, but c’mon. If there’s a swing voter out there who doesn’t know The One’s a liar by now, he/she’s probably unpersuadable.
What Do I Think?
Each of these guys (Obama and Romney) have a "brand"--they have positive narratives and negative ones. When you manage to align an attack ad with a part of the "brand" that it's seen as legitimately relevant to, the ad does damage. In this case, if the attacks really are working, it may be that Romney--who 'looks like the guy who fired you'--is actually susceptible to outsourcing and 1% style attacks. If so, maybe the ads will shift things around.

Team Romney says they just don't think too many people are involved right now so why go to the wall to fight back against these attacks? Possibly true ... But I think there's potentially another reason Team Romney has tried the dismiss-defense beyond "we don't think anyone's really watching / paying attention right now." I think it has to do with his tax-returns. Team Obama has only recently started playing up the previous-to-2010 Tax Return angle again. If Romney engages on his Bain tenure it becomes more and more relevant to ask how exactly he made all that money. There are several issues at play including the offshore accounts and potentially troublesome tax-loopholes in his (extremely quickly growing) retirement account. The exact substance of these may be beyond most people but if Romney starts talking Bain he's likely to be expected to hand in his homework (show his tax returns) and for whatever reason, he clearly doesn't want to do that.

Calling Obama a liar is a good countermeasure if you can't go to the substance--but I, like the Hot Air blogger, am not sure it's going to work all that well.

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