wpostServer: http://css.washingtonpost.com/wpost

When campaign ads backfire

at 11:15 PM ET, 08/08/2012

There has been no shortage of ridiculousness in the 2012 presidential campaign, but for the first time, it seems possible that each side may be paying a price for their over-the-top ads.

The Romney campaign’s new welfare ad and a Democratic super PAC ad featuring a man who essentially blames Mitt Romney and Bain Capital for his wife’s death have broken new ground (or crossed the line) in an ad war that is constantly ratcheting up.

And in both cases, there is anecdotal evidence that they could be doing more harm than good.

Priorities USA Action’s ad, featuring laid-off GST Steel worker Joe Soptic, has proven so toxic and controversial that the White House and Obama campaign have distanced themselves from it.

In the latter case, that’s raised some eyebrows. Obama campaign aides said Wednesday that they had no knowledge of the backstory behind Soptic’s version of events (which CNN reported has holes in its timeline), but it turns out Soptic himself had told the story on a conference call hosted by the Obama campaign in May, and he has also appeared in an Obama campaign ad.

In addition, Time’s Mark Halperin wrote a missive on the magazine’s website Wednesday stating that the ad was clearly out of bounds.

“Responsible journalists will continue to do their best in the Freak Show environment to truth squad every ad, video and communication,” Halperin wrote. “But when lines of decency are crossed, more strenuous efforts are required.”

Priorities USA founder Bill Burton defended the ad Wednesday night on CNN, saying that it didn’t imply that Romney was responsible for the woman’s death (turns out she died of cancer five years after Soptic was laid off, and GST didn’t provide her primary insurance). But that’s pretty clearly the implication of the ad and it’s intended message, even if it’s not stated outright.

“The point of this ad is that — you know, it’s to tell the story of one guy, Joe Soptic, and the impact on his life that happened for years, and to this day, as a result of decisions that Mitt Romney made,” Burton said in response to a grilling from CNN’s Wolf Blitzer.

Likewise, Romney’s campaign is having a hard time with an ad that it produced that accuses Obama of gutting welfare reform. The ad says that “under Obama’s plan, you wouldn’t have to work and wouldn’t have to train for a job. They just send you your welfare check.”

Fact-checkers, including the Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler, have derided the ad as plainly false. Kessler gave it four pinocchios — the highest degree of falsehood.

Enter Newt Gingrich, whom the Romney campaign dispatched Wednesday to defend the attack.

It didn’t go well.

During an appearance on “Anderson Cooper 360” Wednesday night, Gingrich acknowledged that there was “no proof” for the accusation that Obama would “gut” the welfare-to-work program and suggested he would have used different language in the ad.

“We have no proof today, but I would say to you, under Obama’s ideology, it is absolutely true that he would be sending a lot of people checks for doing nothing,” he said.

Ouch. You don’t often see surrogates so thoroughly undercut their campaign’s message.

We’ve argued recently on this blog that out-of-context ads tend to work, provided there is a modicum of believable justification and the media don’t call them out. It may not be right or just, but most keen observers recognize that fact.

But if the media are emboldened to grill campaign aides and surrogates on the ads they are putting on the air, and the attack becomes so utterly discredited, there is a point at which the ads can backfire.

We’re not sure if we’re there yet, but the onslaught of out-of-context and truth-bending ads by the campaigns seems to have put some in the media over the brink. And the ad game has changed, at least somewhat.

Adelson sues National Jewish Democratic Council: Billionaire casino magnate Sheldon Adelson filed a $60 million lawsuit against the National Jewish Democratic Council on Wednesday, claiming the group was guided by political motivations when it claimed he approved of prostitution at an overseas casino he owned. Adelson denies that he approved of prostitution at his Macau casinos.

The suit is notable because it comes just a week after the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, under threat of legal action, apologized to Adelson and retracted statements alleging much the same thing.

Adelson has donated $10 million to the pro-Romney super PAC Restore Our Future and many millions more to other Republicans, making him a top target of Democrats who have tried to undercut the influence of his money by sullying his reputation. But Adelson’s access to the best legal representation money can buy may make Democrats think twice before they take a swipe at him in the future.

Fixbits:

Obama announces that he opposes the Boy Scouts’ ban on gays.

Los Angeles Mayor and Democratic National Convention Chairman Antonio Villaraigosa says Sarah Palin was more qualified to be vice president than Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) is.

Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval (R) says he never asked for a waiver on the welfare-to-work program, as the White House has contended.

American Crossroads head Steven Law says the $300 million his group aims to raise will be “dwarfed” by labor unions.

Gingrich endorses former Wisconsin governor Tommy Thompson in the state’s GOP Senate primary on Tuesday.

A letter to the editor in Missouri provides anecdotal evidence that Democratic efforts to elevate Rep. Todd Akin in that state’s GOP Senate primary succeeded.

A new internal poll for Rep. Joe Donnelly’s (D-Ind.) Senate campaign shows him leading state Treasurer Richard Mourdock (R) 41 percent to 40 percent.

The House Majority PAC, AFSCME and SEIU are teaming up for a six-figure ad buy against Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa). Here’s the ad.

Must-reads:

Colorado poses new challenges for Obama” — Bill Turque, Washington Post

The one chart you need to read about the Latino vote” — Jordan Fabian and Ana Maria Benedetti, Univision

Why the Obama Super PAC Ad Is Different” — Mark Halperin, Time

Obama’s welfare waiver upsets the political right, but will it end work rules for the poor?” — AP

Sean Sullivan contributed to this report.

 
Read what others are saying