More Than $100 Million in Attack Ads Fails to Move Voters

Obama Tied With Romney in Swing States Despite Attack Ad Deluge
A campaign rally for President Barack Obama in the battleground state of Ohio. Photographer: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

After spending more than $100 million airing mostly negative ads in the last three months, President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney and their allies haven’t been able to move the public-opinion needle in the states most likely to determine the general election.

In seven battleground states the candidates are either statistically tied or Obama holds a slight advantage, polls show. The deadlock comes as the campaign moves into a more critical phase that includes the presumptive Republican nominee’s foreign trip and running-mate selection and the two national conventions in late August and early September.

Obama, 50, ran more than 136,000 spots in his top seven battleground states during the past 90 days, according to a Bloomberg News analysis of data from New York-based Kantar Media’s CMAG, a company that tracks advertising. Romney, 65, ran almost 60,000 ads in those states during that period. Three Republican groups backing his candidacy leveled the field some by airing 55,136 commercials attacking the president, while a pro-Obama group ran 11,377 ads.

Still, the blitz isn’t persuading voters in part because so few of them -- about 5 percent in most surveys -- are undecided. “These guys are not worrying about efficiency,” said Ken Goldstein, CMAG’s president. “It is a blunt club and it is going to have very small effects on a very small group of people. There are very few undecided voters and they are very hard to reach, but one way to reach them is through local TV.”

Rising Unfavorability

The spending has had one effect: it’s worked to increase the negative views of both candidates.

In a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll released this week, more than 4 in 10 voters said they felt less favorably toward the candidates after all that they had seen, read and heard about them in recent weeks. The poll also showed disenchantment with Obama and Romney growing since June, as 43 percent of voters viewed the president unfavorably, compared with 40 percent for Romney.

With jobs and the economy at the top of the list of voters’ concerns, those issues also dominate the content of most commercials. Of the 27 presidential spots aired by the candidates and outside groups in the last month, 24 of them have focused on economic issues, according to CMAG. In the most-aired commercials paid for by the candidates, the two sides have engaged in sharp exchanges over which candidate is responsible for moving jobs overseas.

Heaviest Advertising

The states -- in order -- where Obama broadcast the most spots are Ohio, Florida, Virginia, Iowa, Nevada, North Carolina and Colorado. Romney’s top states are Ohio, North Carolina, Iowa, Virginia, Colorado, Florida and Nevada.

Obama’s campaign spent an estimated $49.6 million to run ads in those seven states during the past 90 days, while Romney’s has spent $19.6 million. Crossroads GPS, Americans for Prosperity and Restore Our Future, three outside groups backing Romney, spent $29 million in those seven battleground states during the past 90 days. Priorities USA Action, founded by former Obama aides, spent $4.6 million in those states during that period, according to CMAG data.

In Ohio, Obama is devoting the most attention to the Cleveland market, where he ran 7,546 spots from April 25 through July 23, the CMAG data shows. Romney’s Ohio advertising was also the most concentrated in Cleveland. He ran 3,365 spots there.

Obama Commercial

One of the most heavily aired commercials by the president’s re-election committee has audio of Romney singing “America the Beautiful,” as screen snapshots accuse him of sending jobs to Mexico, China, and India and remind voters of his Swiss bank account and investments in Bermuda and the Cayman Islands. “Mitt Romney is not the solution. He’s the problem,” the commercial concludes. Tampa, Florida-based scored the outsourcing assertions as “half true” and the overseas investment portion of the ad “true.”

Among Romney’s top ads is one that claims stimulus money was doled out to “friends, donors, campaign supporters, special interest groups,” and that it financed windmills from China and electric cars from Finland -- an assertion PolitiFact ranked as “mostly false”

Most voters already think there’s little left to learn about the presidential candidates, according to a survey released July 24 by the Pew Research Center. For Obama, 90 percent of registered voters say they already mostly know what they need to know, while 69 percent say that of Romney.

Voter Curiosity

When it comes to Romney’s background and experience, 41 percent say they’d like to know more about his record as Massachusetts governor, while 36 percent would like to learn more about his tax returns and 35 percent want to know more about his record at the Boston-based private-equity firm Bain Capital LLC. Far fewer want to learn more about his wealth (21 percent), his family and upbringing (19 percent) and his Mormon religious beliefs (16 percent).

Goldstein said the spending can affect attitudes about the candidates and help boost turnout, even if it isn’t moving opinions much when it comes to the candidate horserace.

“Obama is already really campaigning hard,” Judith Trent, a University of Cincinnati professor who studies political communications, said of Obama’s spending. “They’re a little nervous with the polling data and that it doesn’t show the incumbent very much ahead.”

Obama’s campaign took a different turn this week by adding some positive advertising and introducing a spot that shows the president speaking directly to the camera for 60 seconds as he contrasts policy differences between himself and Romney.

Romney Ad

One of Romney’s recent ads presents Obama as unfriendly to American business by using a truncated portion of a comment he made earlier in the month: “if you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that.” News media fact checkers have labeled the ad as misleading and out of context.

Some of the harshest attacks have come from the super-political action committees, which raise and spend unlimited sums while not coordinating with the candidates. A Priorities USA Action commercial asserts Romney bought companies and “drowned them in debt” before driving them into bankruptcy and firing workers. The Washington Post’s Fact Checker gave the ad three Pinocchios, saying it’s “impossible to know” how many employees lost jobs during Romney’s tenure at Bain.

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