Norfolk, Va., caught in crossfire of campaign attack ads

President Obama outgunned Mitt Romney for weeks with an early advertising push in campaign battlegrounds like Norfolk, Va.
(Jewel Samad, AFP/Getty Images)

NORFOLK, Va. — For a glimpse of a presidential contest that seems to have degenerated into little more than name-calling and distortion, spend a day watching TV in this historic Virginia port.

The first attack ads hit around 5 a.m., before dawn breaks over the nearby Atlantic beaches. When they finally end, well past midnight, more than 200 repetitions of the 30-second spots have swamped cable and broadcast stations in the midsized city of Norfolk. It’s a spectacle that most of the country is being spared — thanks to a pattern of swing-state ad spending that largely bypasses major population centers like New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, where the election isn’t in doubt.

In a potentially significant shift, more early advertising has been aired this year than in any previous general election campaign for president. From both sides, the messaging is almost entirely negative and increasingly personal.


A current ad from Obama includes his rival’s off-key singing of “America the Beautiful” and says: “Mitt Romney’s not the solution. He’s the problem.” Independent fact-checkers say the ad twists reality to accuse Romney of pushing American jobs to Mexico and China as a private-equity executive at Bain Capital, and outsourcing jobs to India as governor of Massachusetts.

Romney’s response ad, which sometimes winds up running back-to-back with the commercial it was designed to rebut, pounds away at “Obama’s dishonest campaign” and effectively calls the president a liar. Another Romney spot attempts to divert attention from his tenure at Bain by leveling what fact-checkers call an erroneous claim of crony capitalism against Obama.

Eye-rolling and dismissive comments are frequent responses when Virginians are asked about being in the maw of this campaign. Neighbors compare tactics for avoiding the political phone calls that have already begun — such as refusing to answer when caller ID shows an unfamiliar area code that suggests it could be another partisan appeal or voter “survey.”

“They started flooding our TV stations and cable channel a couple of months ago. We noticed it, and then it seemed to take over. Now it’s a constant,” said Norfolk Mayor Paul Fraim, an Obama supporter who sees a risk that the relentless negativity could alienate prospective voters (which is often the point of negative ads).

“We were counting the other day. In an hour TV show, there were probably six or seven commercials. And this is going to go on until the election? It’s too much,” said Colleen Charlton, 64, a social worker with military families. “They’re just getting meaner and meaner to one another. People my age are a little turned off by that.”

The 2008 John McCain voter isn’t completely sold on Romney and thinks “he is a little far removed from the people” because of his wealth — an underlying theme of the Obama attacks. Like many in this metropolitan area of 1.6 million, the state’s second-largest, Charlton has felt Obama’s aggressive outreach effort. First Lady Michelle Obama, on one of two visits to a local naval jet base, toured the support center where Charlton works. Obama himself made two campaign stops in the Norfolk area recently and just opened two more


local campaign headquarters.

None of those interviewed in Norfolk’s revitalized downtown said they were pleased to be on the receiving end of more TV ads than all but four media markets nationwide — Las Vegas, Cleveland, Denver and Orlando, Fla., according to data compiled by Kantar Media. The ad-tracking firm, using Columbus, Ohio, as an example, found that more presidential campaign commercials ran in the first 12 days of this month than in the first 12 days of September 2008.

“You get tired of hearing this garbage,” said Paul Bohn, a docent at the Norfolk Naval Museum, which features an exhibit about a turning point in warfare: the clash in local waters, exactly 150 years ago, between the ironclads Monitor and Merrimac.

The Navy retiree, like other Virginians, is paying close attention to the ads — validating the Obama campaign’s decision to start beaming them at saturation levels two months ago. He can quote ads from memory and dissect the underlying strategy, such as Obama’s attempt to sway women voters with a commercial that exaggerates Romney’s opposition to abortion.

As for who comes out ahead in the back-and-forth, the 73-year-old sees one clear winner so far: “It’s making money for the TV stations.”

Analysts and strategists in both parties have been debating the impact of Obama’s early ad push, which outgunned Romney for weeks (though Republican “super PACs” helped even the score and the unofficial GOP nominee is now matching the president ad for ad, at least in the Norfolk market). One theory is that the attack ads have planted doubts about Romney’s background as a business executive, arguably his strongest credential, at a time when voters may be more open to political messaging than in the weeks just before the election.

“It’s a huge change,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a University of Pennsylvania political scientist who specializes in campaign communication. “When you have a difference in the amount of spending on advertising that addresses a central biographical claim of a challenger candidate in the summer months, the likelihood that the advertising will affect the vote is high.”

Obama has benefited from “synergy” between his ads and recent news coverage on outsourcing by companies linked to Bain Capital and on the timing of Romney’s departure from the firm, she noted. There has been renewed attention to the Republican’s personal wealth — through his refusal to release income tax returns from before 2010 and the Obama ads blasting Romney’s now-closed Swiss bank account and investments in the offshore tax havens of Bermuda and the Cayman Islands. All of that meshes with the president’s criticism of Romney for continuing to back tax breaks for the richest Americans.

Romney aides have dismissed the Obama attacks as ineffective. A recent memo by Neil Newhouse, the campaign’s pollster, cites national polling data that show the race effectively tied. According to a Quinnipiac University poll completed last week, the contest is dead even in Virginia as well.

“If throwing the kitchen sink at Gov. Romney while leveraging a 2-to-1 ad-spending advantage doesn’t move numbers for the president, that’s got to tell you something about the state of the electorate: Voters are frustrated with President Obama’s failure to keep his promises from the 2008 campaign and don’t truly believe the next four years will be any different from the last three and a half,” he wrote.

Some recent opinion surveys of battleground states show Obama with a small lead, however. The president’s pollster, Joel Benenson, told a group of reporters at a breakfast sponsored by Bloomberg News that the Obama attack ads had reinforced unfavorable attitudes toward Romney in swing states and that Romney’s business experience was viewed more negatively than positively by voters.

“It’s because of what the ads tell people about him,” he said. “The challenge for Romney throughout this campaign has been that the more people hear from him, learn about him, the less enamored they are of what he’s offering them.”

Charlton, the social worker, may speak for many here in Virginia’s Tidewater region when she wishes that both sides would drop the bitter attacks and spend their millions of ad dollars more constructively. “Instead of making us look at those,” she said, “why don’t you tell us what you are going to do about the economy? What about our position in the world?”

One in a series of occasional stories on the states that will determine the next president.