With the debates over and less than two weeks to go before the November 6 election in the United States, the presidential campaigns are shifting into their final phase: persuasion of undecided voters, and mobilization of base voters.
The main tool for persuasion of undecided voters is the barrage of television ads that are invading the living rooms of voters in battleground states. I live in California, which Obama will win handily; consequently, Californians haven’t seen any TV ads from either of the candidates. In fact, voters in most states have seen virtually no TV ads at all because the outcome is virtually assured in approximately 43 out of 50 states. But voters in Florida, Ohio, Virginia and a handful of other battleground states are being carpet bombed, night after night. The air wars are about to intensify as the candidates prepare to spend hundreds of millions of dollars over the final two weeks.
According to the latest figures, both Obama and his opponent Mitt Romney have raised about $1 billion apiece for their campaigns, which is as much as the government budgets of certain underdeveloped nations. MSNBC estimates that a billion dollars could feed over 18 million malnourished children for 50 days, could immunize 58 million children for life, and could buy 320 million anti-malarial mosquito nets. Instead, it’s being used to wage this increasingly bitter political slugfest. At the very least, it’s providing a $2 billion stimulus package for the troubled U.S. economy and a “jobs program” for political operatives and paid consultants.
And various Super PACs controlled by notorious donors like Bob Perry ($18 million spent), Sheldon Adelson ($10 million), the Koch brothers ($4 million), Planned Parenthood ($2 million), George Soros ($1 million) and various labor unions have raised and spent hundreds of millions more (with conservative Super PACs raising nearly 3 times as much money as liberal Super PACs). The candidates each have spent about $700 million of their billion dollar war chests, much of that on approximately 650,000 television and web ads.
So both candidates have spent obscene amounts of money, but they also have plenty of ammo remaining. Their campaigns are locked and loaded and ready for their final assault. I say “assault” because the vast majority of these ads have been extremely negative, attacking each other’s policies and character, oftentimes making ridiculous claims.
For example, one Republican group’s ad suggested that Obama is not an American citizen. Another Romney ad went after Obama for his health care plan, saying his plan is raiding Medicare (the popular health care program for seniors) and would “tax wheelchairs and pacemakers.” Another ad piled on the health care criticisms by saying that Obamacare was being used to declare a “war on religion.”
Ads from Obama and his allied Super PACS have been similarly scathing. One ad ridiculed Romney by using the Sesame Street character Big Bird, since Romney had pledged to cut the budget of the Public Broadcasting System in order to reduce the deficit. Other ads targeted Romney for being the CEO at Bain Capital, a hedge fund which shut down businesses and cut jobs and for paying a lower income tax rate (14%) in 2011 than most Americans pay even though he made $20 million.
But many of the ads have been targeting specific constituencies, with women at the head of the line. The “women’s vote” may very well decide this election, so many ads are being crafted accordingly.
In particular, abortion has gone from being a back burner issue in past presidential elections to a major issue. The Obama campaign has a new ad out saying Mitt Romney would ban abortion. The ad replays a moment during a Republican primary debate in which GOP candidates are asked, “If Roe v. Wade was overturned, Congress passed a federal ban on all abortions and it came to your desk — would you sign it? Yes or no?” The ad shows Romney saying, with evident glee: “I’d be delighted to sign that bill.”
And Obama, according to the National Right to Life Committee, is “the most pro-abortion president this country has ever seen.” Another anti-abortion group, the Susan B. Anthony List, is running anti-Obama TV ads titled “Abortion Radical” and another group calls Obama “pro-death.”
While the polls indicate that abortion and other social issues aren’t nearly as important to most Americans as jobs and health care, abortion is a visceral subject for a certain sub-species of voter. It is a lightning rod issue, one that can motivate those voters, who in turn could perhaps sway wavering friends and family members. In a close race those votes could make a difference in pivotal swing states.
This is not an exact science, so no one really knows which TV ads might be the ones that either help undecided voters make up their minds or mobilize more of their base voters. What we do know for sure is that the candidates will be pulling out the stops and spending every last penny of their billion dollar war chests in their efforts to win at all costs.
Air Wars, here we come.