Be glad you don’t live in Ohio. It’s a fine old state with pretty towns, friendly people and a fairly healthy economy. But over the last six months, its citizens have endured a volume of political advertising unequaled in the history of Western civilization.
To watch the local television news, as I did in Columbus last week, means sitting through as many as six campaign commercials in a row. More than 58,000 presidential campaign ads ran in the state during the last month, according to a Bloomberg News study. And it’s not even certain that the ads are having their intended effect.
“I think it’s going to be a colossal waste of money on both sides,” John G. Geer, a political scientist at Vanderbilt University who has been trying to measure the impact, told me. “These ads aren’t having much effect on the public’s preferences.”
But effective or not, the ads are still interesting — for what they tell you about the campaigns’ strategies as much as what they say about the candidates. For those who aren’t watching television in one of the dozen or so battleground states, here’s the best and worst of what you’re missing. (You can find links to these ads at latimes.com/campaign2012.)
Best positive ad, Obama: “Determination.” The president has been yearning to take credit for some economic recovery; here he does it, with pretty images that recall “Morning in America,” Ronald Reagan’s 1984 classic. “We’re not there yet, but we’ve made real progress,” Obama says. He shows off the glossy booklet containing his second-term plan and, in a nice touch, remembers to say, “I’m asking for your vote.”
Best positive ad, Romney: “Too Many Americans.” An effective combination of negative and positive messages, delivered by a shirt-sleeved Mitt Romney. “Too many Americans are struggling to find work,” he says. “President Obama and I both care about poor and middle-class families. The difference is: My policies will make things better for them.” Geer says this one tested well among independent voters who watched it online.
Most effective negative ad, Obama: “My Job.” This one was easy. The Obama campaign plays the audio of Romney’s dismissal of 47% of Americans as moochers with no sense of personal responsibility — over images of people who don’t look like moochers at all. It’s effective because the only words are Romney’s.
Most effective negative ad, Romney: “Right Choice.” This midsummer ad accused Obama of “gutting” welfare reform by offering to allow states to relax work requirements in experimental projects. Former President Clinton, the author of the welfare law, denounced the ad as inaccurate, and he was right. But it still landed a punch.
Most deceptive ad: Plenty of candidates on both sides. An Obama ad says Romney wanted to keep 30,000 troops in Iraq; Romney actually suggested between 10,000 and 30,000, and Obama wanted to keep thousands of troops in Iraq too. (The ad didn’t mention that.) A Romney ad accuses Obama of going on an “apology tour” in the Middle East; aside from the question of whether Obama apologized for anything, all of the quotes are from an Obama trip to Europe.
Late-breaking slugfest: In dueling ads this week, Romney charges that Obama “took GM and Chrysler into bankruptcy, and sold Chrysler to Italians who are going to build Jeeps in China.” True — but Romney favored bankruptcy too. As the Obama campaign noted in a rebuttal ad, Jeep is expanding production in China, but not at the expense of jobs in Ohio.
Celebrity smackdown: Choose your stars. The conservative American Crossroads group has deployed Clint Eastwood in a gravelly voiced comeback from his empty-chair routine at the Republican convention. “Obama’s second term would be a rerun of the first, and our country just couldn’t survive that,” Eastwood says. The liberal MoveOn.org counters with eye candy: Scarlett Johansson, Eva Longoria and Kerry Washington appealing to women over abortion, contraception and rape. “If you think this election won’t affect you and your life, think again,” Johansson says.
Special political celebrity award: Bill Clinton. The former president charges that Romney’s economic platform “is what got us into trouble in the first place.” It’s the same message that Obama’s been pitching, but when Geer showed it to independent voters, they found it more believable when Clinton said it.
Most artful commercial: No award. Political advertising is one of America’s gifts to the world, like jazz and the blues, but this year’s ads haven’t contributed much to the art form. There’s been a silly ad — the Obama campaign’s commercial naming Big Bird a menace to America (to make fun of Romney’s promise to stop funding PBS). There’s been a risque ad — the Obama campaign’s double-entendre video of actress Lena Dunham telling young women that their “first time” ought to be “with a great guy … a guy who cares whether you get health insurance.” Their first time voting, she means.
But the only ad I’ve seen that pushes the creative envelope is from an independent conservative group, Americans for Prosperity. It shows a family sitting glumly around the dinner table, staring into their plates and saying nothing — for 22 uncomfortable seconds. Then words appear on the screen: “With 12.1 million Americans unemployed, it’s time to try something different.”
For the most part, this year’s final burst of commercials has been negative, polarizing and often unfaithful to the truth. The spots have tried to hit voters’ hot buttons, but they haven’t offered much real information. They’ve been long on fear and short on hope. Most of the time, they haven’t given voters a positive reason for voting either way. And they surely haven’t built much of a mandate for the candidate who wins.
Just like the rest of the campaign, I guess.
Follow Doyle McManus on Twitter @DoyleMcManus