Negative ads often work. But clearly some negative ads work better than others.
Going over the exit poll data, it is striking to see that the messages sent by the Obama campaign were effective, while the messages of the Romney campaign largely fell on deaf ears.
Let’s take a look at three examples.
The Bain attacks
The Obama campaign — with an early assist by former House speaker Newt Gingrich — sought to define former governor Mitt Romney as a corporate raider with little regard for the concerns of middle-class Americans. Regular readers of this column will recall that we were frequently highly critical of these ads (for those who still care, here is a collection of columns), because the ads often stretched the facts and took complex business deals out of context.
But, cleverly, the ads took direct aim at what Romney perceived as his greatest asset for the presidency — his business experience. Thus, they were doubly effective, both in raising doubts about Romney’s character and in undermining his chief selling point. (Similarly, the “Swift Boat” ads of 2004 were aimed at undermining the war heroism of Sen. John Kerry, another patrician Massachusetts politician.)
Moreover, even more hard-hitting Bain ads produced by a pro-Obama Super PAC, Priorities USA America, echoed the Obama campaign ads. One especially tough ad was called “Stage,” which returned to airwaves in the final weeks of the campaign. (It also earned almost 3 million views on YouTube.)
We could quibble with the details of this ad. For instance:
1. The narrator, Mike Earnest, told us he was actually rehired three days after being laid off, though at a job that required 12-hour days. He was laid off again when the paper plant was shut down for good three months later, after a strike.
2. Bain made $100 million on the entire Ampad investment, not just from shutting down this particular plant.
3. There is a dispute over whether the stage was actually built with Bain’s knowledge. The transaction was an asset sale, so the employees were not included. One former Ampad executive told us the previous owner ordered the stage, though documents filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission show Ampad wanted to reduce employee costs.
Nevertheless, as an attack ad, the spot is extremely effective. A colleague at The Washington Post reports that a friend actually decided to support Obama after viewing this ad.
The Obama campaign also benefited from luck. The disclosure of a secret video tape by Mother Jones magazine, in which Romney at a closed-door fundraiser appeared to write off 47 percent of voters, simply reinforced the image that had been carefully crafted by anti-Bain ads.
In the national exit poll, more than one-fifth of voters said that the top quality they sought in a president was “cares about people like me.” Obama won their votes by a ratio of 4 to 1, thus overwhelming the votes of people looking for “a strong leader” or “vision for the future.”
The auto bailout
The Bain ads were also reinforced by negative ads calling attention to Romney’s opposition to the government-backed bailout of General Motors and Chrysler, in particular a 2008 opinion article written by Romney for the New York Times that was headlined “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt.”
This headline, crafted by a Times editor, was a sore point for the Romney campaign, which maintained that his original headline was something along the lines of “The path forward for the auto industry.” It also did not help that Romney appeared to claim that headline as his own in a June 2011 television appearance. A small snippet of the interview--Romney saying “Let Detroit go bankrupt”--appeared in countless ads by Democrats.
Ironically, in the interview, Romney repeated the headline as he was trying to explain that the article had been misinterpreted — he was arguing for a managed bankruptcy, not a liquidation. Here is the relevant part:
Interviewer: “The companies had to go through bankruptcy before that bailout?”
Romney: “That’s exactly what I said.
“The headline you read, which said ‘let Detroit go bankrupt,’ points out that those companies needed to go through bankruptcy to shed those costs. And the federal government put in $17 billion before they finally recognized they needed to go bankrupt, to go through that process.”
No matter. Actually hearing Romney say “let Detroit go bankrupt,” as opposed to just flashing the Times headline, likely made quite an impression on voters — especially in Ohio, where one in eight jobs is tied to the auto industry.
Exit polling in Ohio showed that 59 percent of voters supported the auto bailout — and three-quarters of those voters went for Obama. That certainly made a difference in a state where the margin of victory was only 2 percent.
Imagine if Romney had written one less op-ed.
Obama’s blame for the economy
This is an example of where negative advertising failed.
Countless Romney ads tried to tie Obama to the sluggish economy, making the point that he is responsible for the current jobless levels. The ad below is fairly typical.
But the Obama campaign, in its advertising, constantly tried to remind voters that the president took office in the midst of an economic meltdown — and he tried to associate Romney’s policies with the policies of the previous administration.
We often found those connections to be a stretch, worthy of Three Pinocchios, but apparently it was effective. Exit polls showed that voters, by a large margin, blamed George W. Bush more than Obama for the country’s continued economic woes.
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