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Interest Groups Press Fiscal-Cliff Agendas With TV Ads

With the negative ads that marked the contest between President Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney gone from the airwaves, succeeding them are spots focused on a different political battle: the so-called fiscal cliff.

The latest wave of ads aims to focus voter attention on the stakes involved in the push to avoid the mix of $607 billion in tax increases and spending cuts set to take effect in January. Paid for by advocacy groups including labor unions that want to protect entitlement programs and business groups opposed to tax hikes, some of the commercials are running on national cable television stations. Ad campaigns also are under way in the states and districts of lawmakers who could help broker a deal.

The Congressional Budget Office has said failure to reach an accord may push the economy into recession. So far, though, little progress has been publicly reported by Obama’s administration and Republican congressional leaders on a compromise to avert the fiscal cliff.

The ads seeking to influence the negotiations vary in tone and substance from the harder-hitting, candidate-centered spots that led up to the Nov. 6 presidential election.

“An election ad has one goal: support someone or defeat someone,” said Ken Goldstein, president of Kantar Media’s CMAG, which tracks political ads. “These ads can have multiple goals,” including influencing an undecided member of Congress or cautioning a wavering lawmaker not to break party ranks.

Media Attention

While fiscal-cliff ads are airing on a smaller scale than the presidential campaign ads, the spots could become effective if they generate media attention and galvanize voters.

“Ads don’t have to run very often to produce an avalanche of media coverage,” said Lynn Vavreck, a political scientist at the University of California at Los Angeles. The result can be “pressure on Congress.”

While it’s too early to gauge the impact of fiscal-cliff commercials, issue-oriented commercials can mobilize the public and Congress under the right circumstances. The “Harry and Louise” ads, featuring a fictional couple attacking a health-care overhaul proposed by President Bill Clinton, helped defeat that plan in the early 1990s.

Those ads “conveyed the message that it was a really complicated plan with unintended consequences, and it was targeted very, very carefully at important members” of the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee, Goldstein said.

Labor Groups

In the current debate, three labor groups -- the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the National Education Association and the Service Employees International Union -- aired television ads last week urging five Democratic senators to support an agreement that extends tax cuts for middle-income earners while shielding the entitlement programs of Medicare and Medicaid from budget cuts.

“Because for working families, it’s all about putting Americans back to work, not cutting the things we rely on the most,” a narrator says in the ads, which targeted Michael Bennet and Mark Udall of Colorado, Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Mark Warner and Jim Webb of Virginia.

Those senators “are going to be pivotal in the negotiations, particularly within the Senate Democratic caucus,” said Chuck Loveless, AFSCME’s director of federal government affairs.

House Republicans

The unions also paid for radio ads in the districts of four Republicans who were among about 100 House members that asked a deficit-reduction supercommittee last year to include “all options” for spending and revenue changes “on the table.” The supercommittee deadlocked.

The Republicans are Mike Fitzpatrick and Patrick Meehan of Pennsylvania, who represent politically competitive districts in suburbs of Philadelphia, and Don Young of Alaska and Jo Ann Emerson of Missouri.

The unions plan a second round of ads, though they haven’t decided which members they will target, Loveless said.

“We definitely plan to keep at this as long as we have to,” he said.

AARP, a Washington-based group that advocates on issues affecting older Americans, is running an ad that says Congress should protect Social Security and Medicare, the $591 billion health program for the elderly and disabled. The commercial cautions lawmakers not to “cram decisions about the future of these programs into a last-minute budget deal.”

The ad ran 98 times through Nov. 26 on national cable and network stations, CMAG data show.

Dividend Defenders

A second AARP ad says “politicians are talking about Medicare and Social Security” in Washington “behind closed doors.” It urges older Americans to visit a website,, that calls on Congress to oppose “last minute cuts” to the programs.

Business groups that oppose tax increases on income, including capital gains and dividends, also are making their case on television.

The Alliance for Savings and Investment, a coalition of dividend-paying companies including AT&T Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc., is sponsoring an ad that urges Obama and Congress to prevent the top rate on dividend income from rising to 43.4 percent from 15 percent.

The spot, which shows a retired couple talking about the impending tax increase, ran 79 times through Nov. 26 on national cable and on stations in Washington, CMAG data show.

Mortgage Deduction

The National Association of Realtors, which is pressing Congress to preserve a home mortgage-interest deduction, paid for a television ad that promotes homeownership and directs viewers to a website that says legislators “are debating overhauls to various programs that could sink a home ownership tax benefit.”

The ad ran 439 times after the election on national cable stations and in Orlando, Florida.

A “Fix the Debt” campaign has raised $40 million for a public education campaign about the fiscal cliff and has spent more than $2 million on newspaper, online and outdoor advertisements in Washington, spokesman Jon Romano said.

The campaign -- an offshoot of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a bipartisan group that backs deficit reduction -- has chapters in 17 states and about 100 people on staff, Romano said. Print ads in Washington publications borrow slogans from companies such as McDonald’s Corp. and Nike Inc. -- “I’m Fixin’ It” and “Just Fix It.”

The group, which has ties to former Republican Senator Alan Simpson of Wyoming and former White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles, the co-chairmen of a debt-reduction panel created by Obama, is working to gather support for a bipartisan comprehensive plan on deficit reduction.

Durbin’s Caution

Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the second-ranking Democrat in the chamber, said that organizations shouldn’t be rigid in their positions as they lobby the public and Congress through ad campaigns.

“You will see on a daily basis organizations that we respect and hear of and are engaged in political campaigns buying ads basically saying to the left, keep your hands off the entitlements, and to the right, keep your hands off of taxes,” Durbin said in a Nov. 27 speech to the Center for American Progress, a Washington-based group aligned with Democrats.

“Well, if both sides heed those warnings, nothing will happen, and that’s not good for America,” he said.

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