In March 2004, as Massachusetts Senator John Kerry emerged as the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, then-President George W. Bush was ready to strike, dropping $40 million on ads that mostly attacked his opponent on defense spending, terrorism and taxes.
Kerry’s negative ratings with voters rose to 37 percent in mid-April from 26 percent in mid-February, according to Gallup polls. Though the race remained close in head-to-head matchups, the Democrat’s unfavorable ratings continued to climb and Bush won November’s election in which he got 51 percent of the popular vote to 48 percent for Kerry.
In the early stage of this year’s general election campaign, President Barack Obama and his allies are taking a different tack. They haven’t assailed presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney with the same intensity, spending $4.5 million to run ads in March, April and early May, one-ninth of Bush’s total during the same three-month period four years ago, according to New York-based Kantar Media’s CMAG, an advertising tracking firm.
While Obama intensified his ad campaign this month, the spots tout his record as president more than they attack Romney, the data shows.
“You don’t have anywhere near the scope of activity in advertising that you had at this point in 2004,” even when super-political action committees are considered in the count, Anthony Corrado, a political scientist at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, said in a telephone interview.
Defining the Opposition
In past re-election cycles, presidents used their financial advantage to air television ads several months before the election to create unfavorable and potentially indelible images of their opponents in the minds of voters. The Bush-Cheney re-election committee was following a strategy employed by President Bill Clinton in 1996 as it became clear he would run against Republican Senator Bob Dole of Kansas.
“This all becomes about defining the challenger. Bush wasn’t going to move his numbers very much. Obama is not going to move his numbers very much,” Ken Goldstein, president of CMAG, said in a telephone interview.
The best timing for attacks on the challenger is “when people’s opinions are less well-formed and the clay is softer.”
Katie Hogan, an Obama campaign spokeswoman, said in an e-mail that the president is pouring more resources into person-to-person voter contacts than in bombarding them with early TV ads.
Building Grassroots Base
“We have built the largest grassroots campaign in history because we know that a ground infrastructure will make the difference in November, unlike our opponent who is relying on undisclosed, special interest allies that are trying to buy the election through negative ads,” she said, referring to super-political action committees.
The Obama campaign’s most prominent ad targeting Romney spotlights the closing of a steel plant that was bought by Bain Capital LLC, the private-equity firm co-founded by the former Massachusetts governor. The spot prompted some of the president’s allies to suggest he eschew such attacks, with Cory Booker, the Democratic mayor of Newark, New Jersey, on May 20 calling the debate “nauseating to the American public.” Obama said yesterday the discussion is relevant because Romney’s “main calling card for why he thinks he should be president is his business experience.”
Eight years ago, Bush’s campaign moved early to paint Kerry as a flip-flopper who was weak on national security policy.
The most frequent ad of the 58,368 Bush aired between March 1 and May 10 said Kerry was “wrong on defense,” and showed footage of him telling an audience that he voted for an early version of an $87 billion spending bill for defense and construction projects in Iraq “before I voted against it.”
“We spent early because we wanted to frame the race early and characterize Kerry and his record before he did,” Mark McKinnon, a political consultant who advised Bush’s re-election campaign, said in an e-mail.
“The early advertising put Kerry on his heels out of the starting blocks and he never recovered,” McKinnon said.
Kerry Fought Back
Kerry also began his general election advertising early. He paid for ads to run 40,887 times between March 1 and May 10, at an estimated cost of $22.7 million, CMAG data show. The most frequent spot Kerry aired during that time showed him promising to create 10 million jobs as president and saying Bush’s policies sent jobs overseas.
Kerry’s campaign was aided by The Media Fund, a now-defunct tax-exempt political organization that spent more than $22 million to air ads 27,564 times during March, April and early May of 2004. Its most-aired spots during that period attacked Bush on health care and jobs. The assault helped keep the race close, even though it didn’t prevent Bush’s anti-Kerry messages from breaking through to voters, according to the polls.
That’s prompted some big donors to take a new approach to this year’s election. A top donor to The Media Fund was billionaire investor George Soros, who said this month that he was giving $2 million to groups that focus on political organizing and opposition research, not television advertising.
Outside groups with Democratic ties are less active on television this year than they were in the early 2004, when they were trying to help allies retake the White House rather than hold it.
Eight years ago, the AFL-CIO ran two ads 7,441 times between March 1 and May 10 attacking Bush’s record on jobs. While the nation’s largest labor federation backs Obama’s re-election, it hasn’t aired any ads yet in this year’s race.
Priorities USA Action, a super-PAC founded by former Obama White House aides to promote the president’s re-election, spent just $1.3 million on TV ads through May 14, CMAG data show. It also paid $587,000 along with the League of Conservation Voters, an environmental group, to air an anti-Romney ad in two states.
Priorities USA Action raised $10.6 million through April and had $4.7 million in cash, according to its reports to the Federal Election Commission. That’s far less than some Republican super-PACs including American Crossroads, which had more than $25 million in the bank at the start of this month. Its non-profit arm, Crossroads GPS, which doesn’t disclose its donors or fundraising totals to the FEC, announced last week a $25 million ad campaign this week targeting Obama.
Though Obama and his Democratic allies haven’t hammered Romney on television in the way that Bush attacked Kerry in 2004, that may change as more voters focus on the race and the campaigns plot strategy for the summer and fall.
“I expect that we will see more advertising, and these efforts ramping up, now that it’s the case that Romney has emerged and we’ve moved into more of a general election context,” Corrado said.