Get Ready, Buckeyes—The Campaigns Are Coming!

Ohio’s political press prepares for the message war

OHIO — They’re coming. And the press in Ohio is starting to gear up.

Ohio’s March 6 primary is just under six weeks away and, in light of recent developments in the Republican race, it’s suddenly looming as more consequential—which means it’s likely to be hard-fought by the GOP contenders. In fact, the battle here is likely to get real interesting as soon as next week: early voting in Ohio begins on January 31, the same day as the Florida primary.

In South Carolina, an avalanche of nasty campaign ads, funded in large part by so-called super PACs, enveloped the airwaves. These ads ran about 25,000 times across the state and spending soared past $12 million, boggling the minds of viewers and station managers alike. The general manager of one South Carolina TV station described the onslaught as “about four months of advertising in past presidential campaigns condensed in two weeks.”

With the GOP frontrunner status still up for grabs, the public can expect more of the same here. It will be important for the press to do what it can to wade through the rhetorical salvoes likely to come from these super PACS, and the campaigns themselves, in the coming weeks. And while the hardest work remains ahead, journalists in Ohio have rightly begun to do the spadework, sketching out this key battleground state’s place in the contests to come.

Howard Wilkinson of The Cincinnati Enquirer led the pack with a couple of set-up columns that frame Ohio’s prominence in the 11-state Super Tuesday contest—and in November.

In one column, Wilkinson set the stage for why Ohio matters, and what that means for the message war:

[T]hat means that Ohio GOP voters can expect to see TV ads and hear radio spots paid for by the “super-PACs’’ - privately funded political action committees that are not formally connected to the candidates’ campaigns but are working for their nomination.

Restore Our Future, the pro-Romney super-PAC, already has dumped more than $2 million into broadcast ads in Florida, touting Romney and attacking Gingrich and Santorum.

Romney, Gingrich, Paul and Santorum all have super-PACs. And Ohio voters can expect to hear from them very soon.

The super-PAC supporting Gingrich, Winning Our Future, started running radio ads in some Ohio markets.

The column was topped by a well-done map of the U.S. that displays the number of delegates already secured, the delegates up for grabs, and the states and dates of the primaries through Super Tuesday. Many smaller Ohio news outlets picked it up.

But even while Republican candidates wrangle, it’s clear here that the fall campaign has started. President Obama’s camp recently began securing advertising in a handful of battleground states, including Ohio—a fact that Joe Hallett flagged in The Columbus Dispatch.

Obama’s first ad, which touts the president’s record on ethics and clean energy, was a response to a $6 million national ad campaign by Americans for Prosperity, backed in part by billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch. AFP’s ad had attacked the president’s record on the energy firm Solyndra, which took a $528 million federal loan and still collapsed; the Obama ad opens by accurately citing an ABC News item which found AFP’s claims were “not tethered to the facts.”

But the Obama ad itself may not be tethered to the facts. Politifact Ohio, a project of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, concluded that the ad selectively cited the administration’s own research to support its claim on foreign oil dependence. Politifact also nodded to research by, which took the ad to task for using outdated or retracted praise from fact-checkers and watchdog groups on the president’s ethics record. (That story was picked up by USA Today, though this observer did not spy it anywhere else in the Ohio press.)

No doubt, this is only the beginning for the ad war. But with campaigns and super PACs already zeroing in on Ohio, a September story by the Dispatch’s Hallett is looking prescient. He listened in to a speech by Karl Rove, the former senior political advisor to President George W. Bush who now leads the American Crossroads super PAC, and came away with this nugget for readers:

“Our objective is to be a strong presence in Ohio on the presidential contest, the Senate contest and wherever we might be needed in the House,” Rove said. “We raised $72 million last time (in 2010); our goal is to raise $250 million this time.”

Meanwhile, the Enquirer’s Wilkinson, in another column, reported that while the GOP candidates and the super PACS toss slings and arrows at each other on TV, the Obama camp’s ground game is up and rolling in Ohio. As of this week, no Republican had an organized, active campaign staff in the state.

But while having a solid grassroots organization is valuable for getting supporters to the polls, Wilkinson correctly notes that there’s more than good coordination that goes into a voter’s choice.

“But in the end, it’s about the issues, and about the candidates themselves,” he writes.

Words to live by for Ohio reporters over the next six weeks, and the months that follow. They must find the time to sort through the candidates’ rhetoric and the ever-present ads that will soon blanket the state, and to provide the truth-telling coverage voters need.

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T.C. Brown covered government and politics in the Ohio Statehouse Bureau for The Plain Dealer of Cleveland for more than 17 years, and he has also written for other local, state and national publications. Brown is a founding partner in Webface, a social media communication company.