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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Ads Do Matter….When They are Early or Really Good

We Dems have had our fun blasting away at Karl Rove’s ineffectual Super-Pac ad strategy. But, here and there one sees a dicey generalization extrapolated along the lines of, “See, ads don’t matter. It’s all about ground game.”
On one level, it seems true enough for this election. There is no doubt that the Obama’s campaign’s cutting edge, soup-to-nuts GOTV operation was an instrumental, perhaps the pivotal factor in securing the margin of victory. But it would be folly to ignore the importance of ads deployed by the Obama campaign early on in defining Romney, as an out-of-touch, flip-flopping, tax-dodging errand-boy for the super rich. The impact of those early ads in the Obama campaign has been noted in articles and on political talk shows, but rarely well as Michael Hirsch puts it in his National Journal article “Mitt Romney Had Every Chance to Win–But He Blew It“:

For all of the fretting about how $5 billion in campaign spending left the nation with something close to the status quo ante–a Democratic president and Senate, a GOP House–perhaps the most successful chunk of advertising money ever spent in modern American political history was the initial $50 million or so the Obama team devoted last spring to defining Romney as an exploitative, job-exporting Wall Street plutocrat.
In a dynamic that played out much like 2004, when Democratic challenger John Kerry failed to respond to the Republicans’ “Swift Boat” attacks, Romney never responded effectively to the fat-cat charges. And he never overcame that image, as a blanket of Obama ads kept up the attack through Nov. 6 in the battleground states. “I think they were very smart in defining him early. The early ads paid off,” says GOP strategist Rick Tyler, who helped Newt Gingrich defeat Romney in the South Carolina primary by portraying him similarly. “I don’t think he ever really recovered.”

In addition to the early ad campaign another Obama ad called “Stage” has been cited as a powerful attitude changer, most recently on MSNBC’s ‘Hardball’ program:

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Jane Mayer has an article about the ad in the current issue of the New Yorker (subscriber only link). But she had this to say about the low-budget ad on Chris Matthew’s Hardball show:

…They did some internal studies that showed that the trustworthiness of Romney was 11 points behind that of Obama in places where the ad was shown. In places where it didn’t show, he was just 5 points behind…It made people who watched it think he was profiting from laying people off and breaking promises to fund peoples’ pensions and health care plans…It was a killer ad.

Not surprisingly, one of the makers of the low-budget ad was an ardent fan of the late Frank Capra, who was a wizard at depicting stories of working people overcoming corporate greed. It is a powerful ad, and it may be that forcing the workers to build the stage for announcing their firings was especially galling in its unbridled, sadistic, in-your-face arrogance. Perhaps the take-away is that early ads that define the adversary’s character defects effectively do matter, and really great ads work anytime. The rest…maybe not so much.
It would be Capra-esque, karmic justice if Mike Earnest (yes, really), the worker who lost his job to the Romnoids in the ad, not only put an end to Romney’s political ambitions, but also saved America from a hideous right turn with his heartfelt account.

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