Obama’s ads: Too soon? Too positive?

at 06:30 AM ET, 01/19/2012

The decision by President Obama’s campaign to launch ads in six swing states prior to next week’s State of the Union speech and before Republicans have selected the man who will challenge the incumbent president appears to be a mark of the aggressive approach the president’s team will take to his re-election race.

But is it sound strategy?


U.S. President Barack Obama, speaks in the White House press briefing room on Dec. 23. Obama signed into law a $1 trillion bill to fund much of the government through Sept. 30. (Dennis Brack/Pool via Bloomberg)

To answer that question, you need to answer two other questions first. One, did Obama go up too early with ads? And two, is he wasting money by running positive commercials? Let’s unpack those one by one.

In conversations with a number of Democratic strategists prior to the news of the Obama ad buy, there was broad consensus that the president should wait until it’s totally clear who Republicans will nominate before spending heavily on television.

“It’s still a little early and his opponents are doing a pretty good job of destroying themselves,” said Paul Begala, a Democratic strategist. “I’m not sure I’d interrupt that program.”

While former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney certainly looks like the Republican nominee, there remains the possibility he loses the South Carolina primary on Saturday. If that happens, the nomination fight could drag all the way through March 6 (a.k.a. Super Tuesday).

Elevating Romney by going on the attack against him before it’s entirely clear that he has the nomination sewn up would be a strategic mistake, according to the campaign operatives we spoke to. (Of course, Obama isn’t attacking Romney — or even mentioning him — in this first ad.)

By way of context, President George W. Bush launched his first ads of the 2004 re-election campaign in early March, roughly a month after it became clear that Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry was going to be the Democratic nominee.

In terms of the tone of his first ad, Obama appears to be following a tried-and-true approach to campaigns. You start out with a flight of positive ads to introduce (or reintroduce) yourself to voters before you begin the tear-their-face-off ads that tend to dominate the bulk of the commercials in any campaign.

Bush started that way in 2004. His first two ads — one a 30-second ad, one a 60-second ad — touted his leadership qualities ( “I know exactly where I want to lead this country; I know what we need to do to make the world more free and more peaceful”) and his work to keep the country safe.

By mid-March, the Bush campaign had turned to attacking Kerry; the first anti-Kerry ad used the now-infamous “I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it” line.

Like Bush, support and opposition to Obama is decidedly hardened, even at this early point in his re-election race. Put simply: The people who like him, like him and the people who hate him, hate him.

Obama has to win the economic argument among loosely affiliated and unaffiliated voters in order to win a second term. And his best path to doing that is to discredit Romney as an effective economic messenger.

Given that reality, one Democratic media consultant suggested that it could well be a waste of money for Obama to run even one positive ad.

“You might think [that] if they just get on the air and tell their story, the president’s job rating ... will go up,” said the source. “My guess from how they’re behaving is that that’s not true. They seem to force any conversation [towards] a comparative message. So I’m assuming that their numbers only move after comparative messaging.”

Carter Eskew, who oversaw the ad strategy for then-Vice President Al Gore’s 2000 presidential run, said that Obama has to do both.

“He has to run both a positive and negative track of advertising, but he may not have the resources to do both well, given the fundraising difficulty at the super PAC,” said Eskew. (Priorities USA, the Obama-affiliated super PAC, raised just $5 million over the first six months of 2012 — oodles less than the comparable GOP group, American Crossroads.)

Eskew suggested Obama’s best course of action was to run ads that have both a positive and a negative message contained within them.

“They can make the contrast between a president who is fighting for jobs and the middle class, while Romney and the Republican Congress are opposing and blocking him,” explained Eskew.

For the moment, Obama is going up early and keeping it positive. While the Obama ads will almost certainly keep up, it’s hard to imagine them not taking a relatively quick turn for the negative — particularly if Romney manages a win in South Carolina on Saturday.

ABC News drops bombs on Romney and Gingrich: ABC News on Wednesday dropped a couple bombs before the South Carolina primary, revealing Romney has millions invested in the Cayman Islands and talking to one of Newt Gingrich’s ex-wives for an interview that may or may not air before Saturday’s contest.

Both campaigns moved quickly to defuse the situations.

Romney’s campaign said the money invested offshore was part of a blind trust managed by someone else and wasn’t meant to avoid taxes. A spokeswoman said Romney pays the same taxes on that money that he would pay on U.S. investments.

“Gov. Romney does not decide where the funds are established; the sponsor of the funds does,” Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul told the Fix. “They have indicated the accounts are set up in the Cayman Islands to help attract money from foreign investors.”

Gingrich’s daughters, meanwhile, quickly moved to head off any negative news that might come from the interview with Gingrich’s second ex-wife, Marianne, whose relationship overlapped with those of both his first wife and his third wife. Gingrich and his second wife have no relationship.

“The failure of a marriage is a terrible and emotional experience for everyone involved,” said Gingrich daughters Kathy Lubbers and Jackie Cushman, who are the daughters of Gingrich and his first wife. “Anyone who has had that experience understands it is a personal tragedy filled with regrets, and sometimes differing memories of events.

“We will not say anything negative about our father’s ex-wife. He has said before, privately and publicly, that he regrets any pain he may have caused in the past to people he loves.”

Added Gingrich adviser Bob Walker in comments to the National Review Online: “It is pretty nasty to use personal tragedy for political exploitation. That was a very bitter divorce, and you’re talking about somebody who is still, probably, very bitter.”

GOP seizes on Keystone XL decision: Obama’s potential Republican opponents on Wednesday quickly seized on his administration’s decision not to push forward with the proposed Keystone XL pipeline.

Romney called the move “as shocking as it is revealing.”

“It shows a president who once again has put politics ahead of sound policy,” the former Massachusetts governor said in a statement. “If Americans want to understand why unemployment in the United States has been stuck above 8 percent for the longest stretch since the Great Depression, decisions like this one are the place to begin.”

Added Rick Santorum: “Today’s decision by the Obama Administration is but another capitulation to the radical environmental fringe -- and in turn putting our national security and economy at risk.”

Republican congressional leaders joined the chorus.

As we wrote Wednesday, though, we don’t see this as a game-changing issue. While it’s grist for the GOP’s mill when it comes to accusing Obama of not working to create jobs, it’s such inside baseball that it probably doesn’t fit neatly into the GOP’s 2012 campaign.

Fixbits:

Gingrich says Sarah Palin would have a position in his administration.

Gingrich remains the favorite of strong supporters of the tea party movement.

Gingrich says he pays a 31 percent tax rate and will release his tax returns.

Romney compares Gingrich to Al Gore.

Romney skips an event held by anti-abortion activists pushing for laws that would re-define a fertilized egg as a person.

Obama is still struggling with swing voters, according to a new CBS News/New York Times poll.

Must-reads:

Romney’s rivals challenge his electability” — AP

Rick Santorum focuses on Gingrich with time running out in S.C.” — John Hoeffel, Los Angeles Times

Gingrich sees a South Carolina surge” — Karen Tumulty, Washington Post

For Romney, immigration issue offers an opportunity” — Richard Fausset, Los Angeles Times

 
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