Out of the living room, onto the trail

To gauge what’s really happening in the TV ad war, reporters need to talk to voters

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.

In the real world, though—and especially as the campaign cycle unfolds—there will be the unavoidable problem of ad clutter, as presidential spots get mixed in the rotation alongside commercials for congressional races and state contests. About a week before the 2010 elections, I sat in a hotel room in Louisville and counted 30 separate political spots (15 minutes in total) during the hour-long local news broadcast at 5 pm. These cookie-cutter ads—only the candidate names and offices seemed different—lost much of their potency by dint of their placement amid a cavalcade of “vote-for-me-the-other-candidate’s-worse” hucksterism.

A constant danger in political coverage is to accept the premises of the campaigns about the merits of their strategy. Most television ads that air in a presidential race, when voters already have so much pre-existing information about the candidates, have scant influence on the outcome. But most of the media discussions of the negative spots that aired this week begin with the assumption that the ads are convincing to voters. In truth, with the ads just showing up on television screens, there is no way to tell if they will be as devastating as the 2004 Bush mockery of Kerry’s wind-surfing, or just visual wallpaper.

The Crossroads GPS ad can, for example, be portrayed as a devastating put-down of Obama’s economic stewardship. But TV viewers may also click on the mute button as soon as they hear the narrator’s snide male voice, an unmistakable signal that, “Here comes a political attack ad.” Both the Obama and Priorities USA Action commercials use blue-collar figures talking to the camera to depict the callousness of Bain Capital under Romney. These negative testimonials may boast convincing legitimacy—or they may come across as bland and repetitive.

A few weeks from now, it may be possible to get a handle on whether these particular ad campaigns are working. Not by obsessively watching the gyrating poll numbers (Shazam—Wisconsin’s in play!), but by actually doing the non-glamorous journalism of talking to swing-state voters in restaurants and strip malls about their views of Romney and Obama. You can tell, if you talk to enough voters, whether catch phrases from TV ads are popping up in their conversation. Or whether they look blank when you mention Bain Capital or Obama’s “broken promises.”

With record amounts of money sloshing through politics, this will be a presidential campaign of wretched excess on both sides. A billion-dollar TV onslaught is the predictable way of trying to win the hearts and minds of a nation of couch potatoes. But even in an era of parsimonious travel budgets and ubiquitous YouTube ad clips, it is folly to believe that a reporter can cover the ad wars solely as a journalistic couch potato.

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Walter Shapiro just chronicled his ninth presidential campaign. He writes the “Character Sketch” political column for Yahoo News. Follow him on Twitter @WalterShapiroPD.