The Living Room War was launched this week—the ferocious bombardment of attack ads that will make turning on a television in an up-for-grabs state like Ohio a high-risk, wear-a-metal-helmet venture for the next 25 weeks until Election Day.
But to cover the biggest TV advertising blitz in American political history smartly and to understand its strategic implications, reporters and pundits counter-intuitively will need to step away from their television screens and computer monitors.
The trip-wire was crossed Monday when Barack Obama’s campaign released its first negative spot, a two-minute commercial assailing Mitt Romney and Bain Capital for destroying jobs. Within the next 48 hours, two super PACs flexed their super-muscles with commercials excoriating the president’s handling of the economy (Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS) and continuing the Obama team’s demonization of Bain (the pro-Obama group Priorities USA Action). A New York Times blog post captured the prevailing mood with the headline, “Presidential Ad Wars Kick Into Full Swing.”
The competing ad blitzes brought forth a wave of factcheck coverage (Politifact; The Washington Post; CBS; ABC). Reading it reminded me that factchecking negative TV ads, like being a coal mine safety inspector, is one of those laudable callings that I am so glad that someone else is doing. But I do worry that the media’s truth-in-politics crusaders are about to be overwhelmed by the deluge of duplicitous TV ads coming their way. I see the fact-checkers as akin to Mickey Mouse in the Sorcerer’s Apprentice scene from Fantasia, unable to keep up with the torrent from endless buckets.
This week there was solid reporting on the factors that shaped the decision-making of the campaigns and super PACs. Writing a short post for Politico, Maggie Haberman made the explicit strategic point: “Crossroads is matching the Obama campaign’s announced plans for $25 million in TV time over a similar period—providing Mitt Romney with needed air cover as he tries to husband resources.” A New York Times article by Jeremy W. Peters adroitly notes that the ad buys on both sides are concentrated in nine or 10 states; in contrast, George W. Bush in 2004 began spending $5 million every week against John Kerry, but the commercials were aired in 17 different states. The Peters article also picks up a whiff of urgency: “Only a few weeks remain before the busy television-watching season slows down and summer reruns begin.” (For a detailed look at how concentrated ad-buying creates a small set of big winners among local stations, see this article by CJR’s Erika Fry.)
But there was an important contextual element missing from nearly all the coverage I read about the start of the TV campaign: some skepticism about how effective any of these ads is likely to be.
By my rough reckoning, more than $1 billion may be spent on television ads, mostly voice-of-doom attacks, in the coming presidential campaign. Let me explain the math: the Obama and Romney forces, including super PACs and independent groups, appear to be on target to spend $1.5-$2 billion on the presidential race. Traditionally, perhaps 60 percent of all campaign spending is for TV spots, including cable. If, say, $1.8 billion is spent on the battle for the Oval Office and 60 percent of that total goes to television, we have crossed the $1 billion threshold—with nearly all of that still to come.
Numbers like $25 million spread over a month (the Crossroads buy, distributed across 10 states) sound impressive until you realize that, assuming my guess about overall spending is in the ballpark, the Obama and Romney forces will be collectively spending an average of $40 million per week from now until Election Day. What we are seeing—and brace yourself, swing-state residents—is the new normal.
It is easy for political reporters to become inured to seeing new political spots on YouTube. Without boring you with my memories of the Coolidge campaign, I do remember the era when you had to go to a campaign office to screen the ads or beg a friendly staffer to send you videocassettes. But there has always been something disembodied about seeing campaign ads in isolation rather than being subjected to them unawares, like typical voters. Inevitably, political commercials seem far more compelling and convincing on YouTube than they do when viewed in context.