President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign aired a television commercial in Ohio and Virginia last month that touted the tariffs his administration slapped on Chinese tires three years ago.
Though millions of voters in the two states never saw it, the ad -- and where it ran -- are integral parts of Obama’s strategy to carry these election battlegrounds.
The commercial was seen in Ohio markets including Cleveland and Youngstown, as well as Virginia’s southwestern corner -- areas hard hit by a decades-long decline of U.S. manufacturing and where voters may be more likely to blame China for economic woes. The ad didn’t run in Ohio’s capital, Columbus, or the northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, where the local economies are more advanced and diversified.
Republican challenger Mitt Romney also is using the airways to duel with Obama over China, offering himself as better able to combat that country in trade disputes. An ad in which Romney pledges to “stand up to the cheaters” in China ran last month in most of the election’s swing states, those with a history of supporting either major-party presidential candidate. The one key state where the ad was withheld was Iowa, where farmers benefit from expanded trade with nations including China.
The ads underscore the prevalence of an anti-China message by both candidates amid public distrust of the world’s most populous nation and second-biggest economy. The placement of the commercials demonstrate how each camp is using targeted pitches to influence segments of voters who may determine the White House winner.
In Ohio, for instance, the anti-China campaign “doesn’t have to mean” that residents “broadly feel that way,” Herb Asher, a political scientist at Ohio State University in Columbus, said in an interview. “All these ads are trying to do is to slice off a percentage point or two here and there. It’s such a close race in Ohio that anything that might convince a few voters is being tried by the campaigns.”
Ohio, which has 18 electoral votes of the 270 needed to win the election, has backed the winner in 12 consecutive elections. Obama has a 1.3 percentage point lead over Romney, according to an average of recent polls compiled by the website RealClear Politics.
A national Pew Research Center survey released Sept. 18. showed that 68 percent of Americans, including 74 percent of Republicans and 61 percent of Democrats, said they can’t trust China too much or at all.
Against that backdrop, China was a focus of 10 distinct ads from Obama and Romney that ran 47,190 times in the 30-day period ended Oct. 8, according to New York-based Kantar Media’s CMAG, which tracks advertising.
Romney, who blames the Obama administration for manufacturing job losses and a failure to designate China as a currency manipulator, ran seven ads referencing China 29,317 times. Three of those ads, including the China “cheaters” spot, ran more frequently than any other commercials Romney’s campaign aired during that period. Obama’s three China ads ran 17,873 times, CMAG data show.
Obama’s most frequently aired China ad says Romney funneled U.S jobs to that nation through Bain Capital LLC, the private-equity firm the Republican co-founded. “Romney’s never stood up to China,” a narrator says. “All he’s done is send them our jobs.”
The anti-China ads ran most frequently in Ohio, where Romney ran five such spots 7,957 times and Obama’s three spots aired 3,742 times, CMAG data show.
“Foreign trade is a big issue in Ohio, particularly in northeastern Ohio,” John Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron, said in an interview. “There’s a widespread perception that the United States has lost lots of jobs abroad, including to China.”
The politics of bashing China and policies affecting U.S.- China relations have intersected on the campaign trail.
In July, Obama began a swing through Ohio the same day his administration filed a complaint with the World Trade Organization accusing China of imposing unfair duties on $3.3 billion in U.S. auto exports. Obama announced another WTO complaint in Ohio last month, accusing China of illegally subsidizing exports of automobiles and auto parts.
Romney says Obama was motivated by political expediency. “I will not wait until the last months of my presidency to stand up to China, or do so only when votes are at stake,” Romney said in a statement last month responding to the newer WTO complaint.
The Republican-leaning free-market group Club for Growth, which supports free trade and cutting government spending and taxes, attributes Romney’s anti-China stances to political motivations.
Labeling China a currency manipulator, as Romney has promised to do as president, “incites a trade war,” Andy Roth, the club’s vice president for government affairs, said in an interview. “I think Romney is doing it simply to pander to voters,” he said.