McCain Attack Ads Called Inevitable -- And Ineffective

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Joe Trippi, the veteran Democratic strategist, said there's a reason John McCain's attack ads don't seem to be hurting Barack Obama.

"I don't think they matter hardly at all," Trippi, who worked for John Edwards during the primaries, said of both sides' commercials. "Most people are looking at the financial crisis, looking at their 401(k)s, and in between they're seeing the two candidates beat the living daylights out of each other and rolling their eyes."

Alex Castellanos, the veteran Republican strategist, said Obama's image is hard to tarnish because voters have come to know the senator from Illinois.

"They've seen him for a year and a half in debates," said Castellanos, who worked for Mitt Romney in the primaries. "They've been barraged with television. To come up now and say, 'Don't believe your lying eyes -- this candidate is not who you think he is,' is a very tough challenge."

As the presidential candidates open their war chests in the campaign's final stretch -- spending a combined $28 million on television ads in the week that ended Oct. 4 -- political pros are mixed on whether they're getting their money's worth. Obama, who faces no fundraising restrictions because he declined to accept public financing, is outspending the senator from Arizona on the air by a 2 to 1 margin.

But some analysts say neither side's spots are changing the campaign dialogue. This has been particularly true, analysts say, during the recent financial crisis that has at times overwhelmed the campaign itself.

"This race is not being moved by television advertising, with the fundamental factors so much to the advantage of the Democrats," said Ken Goldstein, who directs the University of Wisconsin's advertising project. "It's just adding to the fog of information out there. . . . Obama's huge spending makes McCain have to scream even louder to get his message heard."

Both campaigns are putting a handful of ads into heavy rotation, while barely airing others that are designed to generate cable news coverage and Internet traffic.

For the two weeks that ended last Friday, Obama's ads aired 66,169 times and McCain's 32,027, said Evan Tracey of the Campaign Media Analysis Group. "Obama's just turning up the volume to a level that's never been seen before," he said.

McCain's most frequent 30-second spot -- airing 8,490 times -- accuses Obama of being "mum on the market crisis" and calls him "a risk your family can't afford." In second place, airing 7,904 times, is an ad that calls Obama "dishonorable" for saying that U.S. troops in Afghanistan were "just air-raiding villages and killing civilians." In fact, Obama said he wanted to avoid such occurrences, which have been confirmed by the Pentagon.

Both commercials were made in partnership with the Republican National Committee, which can underwrite a bigger rollout. But under federal rules, such hybrid ads must be based on issues and cannot feature a candidate asking for support.

"All you can do is basically run a negative campaign" in such hybrid ads, said Tad Devine, a top strategist for Sen. John F. Kerry's 2004 presidential campaign, which faced a similar dilemma. "You have McCain, whose content is limited, versus Obama, who can say whatever he wants."

One example is a hybrid ad released Friday that assails Obama for his relationship with former radical William Ayers but then abruptly switches to an attack on liberal Democrats in Congress over the mortgage meltdown.

McCain has put out a number of phantom ads, such as one charging that Obama's career was "born of the corrupt Chicago political machine" and invoking convicted businessman Antoin "Tony" Rezko. That ad, which drew considerable media coverage, aired 11 times. Another spot begins: "Who is Barack Obama? The National Journal says he's the Senate's most liberal. How extreme." It aired twice.

Obama's most frequently aired commercials were a pair of health-care spots, which were seen 32,990 times. One notes that McCain "says that he's going to give you a $5,000 tax credit. What he doesn't tell you is that he's going to tax your employer-based health-care benefits, for the first time ever." Flush with cash, Obama is running a two-minute spot about his economic plan.

Obama also produced a commercial last week accusing McCain of "smears" in his advertising, but there is no record of it having run. McCain's ad the same day, accusing Obama of having "lied" in his claims, aired twice.

While McCain's advertising is almost 100 percent negative and Obama's is one-third negative, those figures are somewhat misleading. Obama's spending is so great, said Tracey, that he is matching the volume of McCain's negative ads while churning out even more spots of the positive variety.

Strategists could think of only two commercials this year that had a significant impact on the campaign dialogue. One was Hillary Rodham Clinton's "3 a.m." ad, which questioned Obama's readiness to handle an emergency phone call, and the other was McCain's spot likening Obama to Paris Hilton, which triggered a debate over the celebrity aspects of his candidacy.

But while positive spots are often deemed less newsworthy, a sustained campaign can yield results over time. Devine said Obama's lead in battleground states where he has advertised heavily is greater than in states where he has been on the air less often. In one recent ad, Obama talks about the values instilled by his mother and grandparents.

"Obama has told his bio, a lot of his story," Castellanos says. "It's especially important for the new guy that people don't know. With McCain, it's harder to fill up a glass that's already full."

Even if McCain and the RNC were to boost spending on the ad involving Obama and Ayers, several analysts doubted it would be effective during the current financial crisis.

"It's very hard for people to care about old hippie terrorists when the world is collapsing around them," Tracey said.

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