While polls show the economy as the top concern of voters, a review of political attack ads suggests a different issue dominates: energy.
Americans for Prosperity, an organization backed by oil interests, last week began airing its third television commercial since November, a campaign worth $6.1 million, attacking Obama’s green energy policies.
The latest round brings the group’s total ad buys to $12.5 million this year, compared with a combined $5.7 million total spent on ads of all sorts by Obama and Priorities USA Action, a Washington-based super political action committee supporting him. Priorities on April 24 teamed with the League of Conservation Voters to begin a $1 million commercial run that accuses presumed Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, of being a protector of the oil industry.
“Energy is the issue unless the entire economy starts to unwind,” said Stephen Brown, a lobbyist for oil refiner Tesoro Corp. of San Antonio, Texas.
That’s not the conclusion of the White House, which includes energy policy in a broader discussion about the economy and job creation. The ability of oil interest groups, though, to attempt to carve out and elevate their issue is the latest example of how the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision has changed politics by allowing corporations, unions and wealthy individuals to spend unlimited sums to drive the debate.
‘Buy the Election’
“While the president fights every day to build an economy where everybody gets a fair shot and does their fair share, special interests across the country are mobilizing to buy the election for Governor Romney to try to promote their interests over the interests of the American people,” Ben LaBolt, Obama’s campaign spokesman, said in response to Americans for Prosperity’s latest ad buy.
In April, 16,991 negative ads aired in various parts of the country and 13,748 of them -- or 81 percent -- focused on energy, according to data provided by New York-based Kantar Media’s CMAG, which tracks advertising.
Republicans say the ads are timely and effective because high gasoline prices put Obama on defense at the onset of the general election. Democrats say they prove that Republicans are struggling to find an effective attack line amid an economy that is showing signs of recovery.
According to an April 13-17 CBS News/New York Times poll, 48 percent of Americans say the economy and jobs are the most important problem facing the country today. Fuel costs, which were chosen by 3 percent, fell behind health care and the budget deficit and national debt. The poll had a three-percentage-point margin of error.
The U.S. unemployment rate held at 8.2 percent in March, highlighting a strengthening economy that may bolster Obama as he approaches the November election. The nation’s gross domestic product grew at an annual rate of 2.2 percent in the first quarter of 2012 from the fourth quarter of last year.
“The number of targets are shrinking” for Obama’s opponents, said Daniel Weiss, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Center for American Progress, a Democrat-aligned policy group in Washington. “They believe that they can attack the president on trying to build a clean energy industry.”
Other groups running energy ads include the American Energy Alliance, a Washington-based nonprofit group funded in part by U.S. oil companies and headed by Thomas Pyle, a former lobbyist for the National Petrochemical and Refiners Association and Koch Industries. In March, it began a $3.6 million television campaign targeting Obama on gas prices.
Let Freedom Ring, an advocacy organization active with ads targeting Obama in 2008 and whose founder is evangelical Christian John Templeton, and Washington-based Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies, which is affiliated with Republican political strategist Karl Rove, are also airing commercials critical of the president’s energy policy.
The biggest player has been Virginia-based Americans for Prosperity, which spent $6 million on a spot that began in January targeting Obama’s support for Solyndra LLC, the failed solar-panel maker that won a $535 million loan guarantee from the government. The group, funded in part by the billionaire oil magnates David and Charles Koch, earlier had spent $2.4 million on ads focusing on Solyndra in battleground states.
The ad campaign it started last week claims that “billions of taxpayer dollars spent on green energy went to jobs in foreign countries.” The American Petroleum Institute in Washington gave $25,500 to AFP in 2010, according to Internal Revenue Service filings.
“This administration has had an almost obsessive focus on their global warming agenda,” AFP President Tim Phillips told reporters April 26. Obama has been focused “on an ideology as opposed to genuinely trying to get this economy moving again,” he said.
Yet some of the information in the ad is misleading. Among its claims: $1.2 billion went to a solar company building a plant in Mexico and $500 million went to an electric car company that created hundreds of jobs in Finland.
According to an investigation by ABC News and the Center for Public Integrity’s iWatch News, Anaheim, California-based Fisker Automotive Inc. is assembling its first line of cars in Finland, though its chairman, Henrik Fisker, has said the U.S. money has been spent on engineering and design work that stayed in the U.S.
The solar money went to a facility in California for a company that owns a separate plant in Mexico, according to the Washington Post’s “Fact Checker” column, which gave the ad “four Pinocchios” -- its highest rating for falsity.
The Obama campaign responded this morning with a commercial of its own, quoting the “Fact Checker” column that described the ad against the president as “erroneous” and “over the top.” It said Romney had “shipped American jobs to places like Mexico and China” as a corporate executive and had outsourced state jobs to a call center in India as governor of Massachusetts. “It’s just what you’d expect from a guy who had a Swiss bank account,” the Obama ad ends.
In the first three months of 2012, the anti-Obama groups spent $16.7 million on negative ads on energy policy, according to an analysis by the Center for American Progress.
“This administration has had the fossil fuel industry writ large in its sights since day one,” said Brown, the Tesoro lobbyist.
The new pro-Obama ad from Priorities and the Washington-based League of Conservation Voters is titled the “$200 Million Man,” and says Romney has pledged to protect oil company profits and billions of dollars in special tax breaks. It began running in Nevada and Colorado.
Priorities is convinced the Koch brothers alone will spend $200 million on Romney’s behalf in this election cycle, said Paul Begala, a Democratic strategist who is advising Priorities.
“The question here is ‘cui bono,’” or “who benefits?” he said in a conference call with reporters. “We just want to draw that picture for voters.”
Gas prices may become less potent an issue. Gasoline prices have fallen 11.1 cents since peaking at $3.941 on April 2. The national average price for regular gasoline dropped 1 percent to $3.83 a gallon from a week earlier, according to an Energy Department report.
“All this money spent on energy only is going to have an impact if prices remain high,” said Bruce Oppenheimer, a political scientist who also studies energy policy at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.
He also said the spending disparity may not hurt Democrats as some Obama supporters might think. “We tend to think that the amount of spots is the whole ball of wax,” he said. “What you’ve got to avoid are unanswered attacks.”