The disconnect between what voters say they care about and what they’re seeing on TV lies in the money behind the ads, much of it coming from oil and gas interests. Those funders get the double benefit of attacking Obama at the same time they are promoting their industry.
Democrats also have spent millions on the subject, defending the president’s record and tying Republican candidate Mitt Romney to “Big Oil.”
Overall, more than $41 million, about one in four of the dollars spent on broadcast advertising in the presidential campaign, has gone to ads mentioning energy, more than a host of other subjects and just as much as health care, according to ad-tracking firm Kantar Media/Cmag.
In an election focused heavily on jobs and the economy, all of this attention to energy seems a bit off topic. But the stakes are high for energy producers and environmentalists, who are squared off over how much the government should regulate the industry. And attention has been heightened by a recent boom in production using new technologies such as fracking and horizontal drilling, as well as a spike in gas prices this spring just as the general election got underway.
When asked whether energy is important, more than half of voters say yes, according to recent polls. But asked to rank their top issues, fewer than 1 percent mention energy.
Still, so much spending focused on a topic low on the public agenda should not be a surprise, given the interest of the ad sponsors, said Bob Biersack, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.
“It’s always been true that people’s financial involvement in politics tends to reinforce their self-interest,” he said.
The policy debate coincides with a flurry of criticism of the Obama administration’s loan guarantee for Solyndra, a bankrupt solar-power company that defaulted on more than $500 million. Among the company’s investors was the family foundation of a major donor to Obama.
“Half a billion in taxpayer money gone, and Obama said this was a model of growth,” says an ad from the conservative group Americans for Prosperity. “Tell President Obama that workers aren’t pawns in your political games.”
Obama spokesman Ben LaBolt said the campaign welcomed the fight over the administration’s energy policies, saying the president can win on the merits.
“This debate has offered us the chance to highlight the success of the president’s all-of-the-above energy strategy – domestic oil production at a 12-year high and our dependence on foreign oil at a 16-year low, domestic natural gas production at an all-time high and doubling our renewable energy production,” LaBolt said.
Republicans are also attacking Obama for rejecting permits for the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry oil from tar sands in Canada to refineries on the Gulf Coast. Romney opened the general election with an ad prominently featuring the Keystone issue, with the candidate saying he would reverse Obama and approve the pipeline on his first day in office.
Americans for Prosperity, one of the major funders of the ads, has sponsored five television spots against Obama, two of them focused on Solyndra and another critical of government spending on clean energy.
The organization, which has promoted tea party candidates, has devoted more than 90 percent of its ad spending to energy-related commercials, according to Kantar.
The Obama campaign and other Democrats have been critical of the group, saying, among other things, that its billionaire backers, brothers Charles and David Koch, are using it to promote the interests of the chemical conglomerate they own. David Koch is a founder and chairman of the organization. A Koch spokesman declined to comment.
Obama answered Americans for Prosperity’s message in his first ad of the campaign.
“Secretive oil billionaires attacking president Obama with ads fact checkers say are not tethered to the facts,” a narrator says in the spot.
Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity, said the group focused on Solyndra because the firm’s federal loan guarantee exemplifies cronyism and big government, with bureaucrats choosing economic winners and losers in the way they dole out public money.
“To us, Solyndra encapsulates everything that’s wrong with the economic policies of President Obama,” Phillips said. “It’s not just the energy, although the energy is important.”
The group also ran millions of dollars of advertising in 2009 and 2010 opposing the president’s health-care plan, Phillips said.
All of these messages could very well do what their funders have in mind and shape public opinion, tarring renewable energy as a government boondoggle, said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.
“Ads can create an agenda-setting effect and frame an issue,” she said. “If renewable energy comes to be seen as Solyndra, that’s a problem for that sector, not simply for future government investment in that sector.”
The American Energy Alliance, an advocacy group that pushes for less government regulation of the industry, spent $3.6 million this spring on an ad attacking Obama over gas prices, Solyndra, the Keystone pipeline and his opposition to drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The ad includes a 2008 quote from Energy Secretary Steven Chu saying that, to drive down consumption, U.S. gas prices need to climb to the higher levels of Europe, comments he later reversed.
Benjamin Cole, a spokesman for the group, said it received most of its funding in its last tax year from individual families, including many with newfound wealth from domestic drilling.
“They’re now receiving impressive royalty checks because of the energy that’s being produced on their land,” Cole said, “Those people are happy that organizations like ours are keeping the pressure on federal regulators in Washington.”
Among the groups whose singular focus in campaign ads has been energy is the American Petroleum Institute, a trade organization for oil companies. One of the ads depicts Obama on screen saying he will do “whatever it takes to put this economy back on track.”
“He promised,” a narrator says. “Now’s his chance. The Keystone XL pipeline is ready to be built. . . . It’s all up to the president. Will he say yes to new jobs? Yes to economic growth?”
A spokesman for the group, Eric Wohlschlegel, said the ad was not an attack on Obama but meant to encourage the president and Congress to approve the pipeline. He said his group is running “nonpartisan, noncandidate ads to encourage Americans to make energy a ballot box issue in 2012.”
Independent groups supporting Obama have joined the fight, tying Romney to the spending by energy interests. The League of Conservation Voters, an environmental group, and the super PAC Priorities USA Action have spent $1 million on that effort.
“Big Oil has pledged $200 million to help Mitt Romney, and Romney’s pledged to protect their profits and billions in special tax breaks,” their ad states. “So when you fill up your tank, remember who’s in the tank for Big Oil.”
Peyton Craighill contributed to this report.