Voters Believe Attack Ads Even as They Don’t Like Them

Negative messages
Supporters of President Obama protest and Mitt Romney across the street of a rally for Romney in Cornwall, Pennsylvania. Photographer: Mark Makela/In Pictures/Corbis

Mitt Romney and Barack Obama are accusing each other of being “out of touch” based on things they’ve said on the campaign trail. The conclusion of a plurality of likely voters: They’re both right.

In the past two months, the presidential campaigns have been laying down their candidate narratives and fine-tuning the messages they will be using against their opponent. According to a Bloomberg National Poll, the public believes almost all of the bad things they are saying about each other.

More than half of voters agree Obama is “in over his head” when it comes to fixing the economy and that he hasn’t delivered the change he promised in the 2008 race, two central themes of Romney’s campaign.

At the same time, pluralities say Romney’s economic platform would be a return to the “failed” policies of President George W. Bush and that Romney would be an “ineffective” job creator.

The poll results offer insight into how the barrage of attacks being aired on television and computer screens in swing states are creating a political environment some voters describe as toxic, and even personally harmful.

“I feel half the things they are saying to me are probably false,” says Loretta Price, 65, a retiree from Ocala, Florida. “It’s nonstop baloney.”

In almost equal numbers, likely voters question whether either candidate understands the anxiety they’re experiencing because of the economy’s uneven recovery.

Out of Touch

Forty-nine percent of likely voters say Obama’s June 8 comment that the “private sector is doing fine” shows he’s out of touch. Half say Romney’s comment last Aug. 11 that “corporations are people, too” shows he’s not in touch with ordinary Americans, either.

The contentious political climate is beginning to affect the personal lives of voters, the poll shows.

A majority say they talk about politics at least once a week, including more than one in four, 28 percent, who say they talk about the topic almost every day.

Those conversations aren’t always friendly. Sixty-one percent of those who talk about politics say they agree with just some or not at all with the other conversation participants.

More than one in three, 36 percent, say they stopped talking about politics with someone because of differences. Fifteen percent say they no longer speak about politics altogether because the discussions have become “too painful.”

Losing Friends

In all, 44 percent say they’ve distanced themselves from someone because of political differences.

“We’ll get into a discussion that pretty quickly becomes clear that it’s not going to resolve itself in any amiable way,” says Elizabeth Eklund, 22, a student nurse in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Adam Burdess, 27, says several Facebook friends “unfriended” him on the website after he posted comments voicing his strong support for the federal health-care law.

“It caused me to tone it down a little bit,” he says. “I felt bad that they felt compelled to unfriend me over something like that.”

The poll, conducted June 15-18 by Des Moines, Iowa-based polling firm Selzer & Co., has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points for the full sample of 1,002 and 3.6 percentage points for the 734 likely voters contacted.

Echoing in Ads

The messages tested are themes both candidates are employing on the campaign trail and in television ads.

A June ad from Obama hits Romney’s record as Massachusetts governor, charging him with having “one of the worst economic records in the country.” A Romney ad aired around the same time highlights the country’s unemployment and foreclosure rates, asking how Obama can improve the economy if “he doesn’t understand it’s broken.”

Poll respondents registered concern about the policies of Obama’s administration and whether they have strengthened the economy, while they also remain unsure whether Romney’s proposals would be any better.

More than half, 54 percent, say for the economy to improve, the administration’s plans need more time to take full effect -- an argument that’s a central theme of the Obama campaign. The number who say a “complete change of course” is needed, a core Republican message, dropped to 43 percent from 48 percent in October 2010.

Not Bill Clinton

Fifty-seven percent of likely voters and 61 percent of independents say the president hasn’t delivered the change he promised during the 2008 campaign. Pluralities of likely voters say he has embraced “European-style socialism” and is more partisan than former President Bill Clinton.

Men have a more negative view of Obama than women, as 61 percent of male voters and 54 percent of female voters say the president hasn’t delivered the change he promised.

Still, voters show doubts about whether Romney is better qualified to create jobs or appreciate the stress in their lives. Fifty-two percent say he’s “too wealthy” to relate to the problems facing ordinary Americans.

Forty-seven percent say the former governor would be an “ineffective” job creator, given Massachusetts’ ranking as 47th in job growth during his term.

They take a less negative view of Romney’s private sector background.

Bain Attack

Democratic assertions that as chief executive officer at Bain Capital LLC, a private equity firm, Romney fired workers to make more profit don’t resonate as much as other attacks. Thirty-eight percent of likely voters and 32 percent of independents agree that Romney “killed more jobs than he created” while working at Bain.

Romney’s religion could be a drag. The poll finds that almost four in 10, 39 percent, of all respondents have a negative view of the Mormon Church, compared with 29 percent who say they have a favorable impression of the religion.

In contrast, 49 percent have favorable views of the Catholic Church and 41 percent view evangelical Christians positively.

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