With 38 days remaining in the 2012 presidential campaign, both campaigns turn to the media as a way to reach the American people. Due to the recent leak of Romney’s 47% comment gaffe at a fundraiser event in May, and Obama’s hesitance to directly address the assassination of ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans, both candidates have intensified their use of negative advertisements.Earlier this week, the Romney-Ryan campaign released an ad saying that fewer Americans are working today than before Obama took office. They blame Obama for not “standing up to China” and claim, “China is stealing American ideas”. The ad goes on to mention that Obama could have taken action against China seven times, but he “said no” every time. The narrator then concludes that these policies have cost Americans two million jobs, although as the New York Times blogger Sarah Wheaton notes, there is no evidence of the direct relationship between these lost jobs and China.
While this recent Romney ad highlights one particular issue, only one real statistic is presented, and even it remains questionable in terms of its basis in factual reality. The Romney campaign is engaging in a particular campaign strategy of “highlighting the negative”. And the Obama campaign is doing the same. Yet, this ad’s main power relies on insinuating that Obama cannot “stand up” to China and by citing one statistic. With over a month before the election takes place, one might expect a campaign ad to be able to pull out a few more statistics to throw in the face of their opponent. It is unclear whether the campaign simply did not want to, or did not have them to draw from, but either way the ad reiterates the criticism that Romney does not present specifics well. Running for president requires by nature that a person be able to handle specifics extremely well, and this repeating pattern of Romney’s vague statements is not helping his presidential image.
The Obama campaign released a new ad, too. Not surprisingly it attacked Romney for paying just “14.1% in taxes” and for saying at the May fundraiser, “my job is not to worry about those people”, referring to the 47% of the population that don’t pay income taxes, with the narrator interjecting, “doesn’t the president have to worry about everyone?” The ad ends by suggesting that Romney stop pointing fingers at others who don’t pay taxes, and start by releasing his own taxes from before 2010.
Again, the Obama campaign is highlighting the negative in Romney, and while strategically this seems to work reasonably well at attracting media attention, it still seems that by focusing so much energy on the negative and the opponent, both candidates are denying themselves opportunities to carve out positive images to Americans. In Obama’s case, he does not really need to spend a lot of effort addressing his character because the public has already had four years to evaluate him. But for Romney, it seems like his strategy should shift to cultivating a more likable public image, especially given this poll about how much Americans relate to either candidate. The poll indicates that about 75% of Americans feel “little or nothing in common” with Mitt Romney. By contrast, 59% of Americans feel they have “little or nothing in common” with Obama.
Romney’s campaign attempted to address this public image discrepancy with the release of this new ad coinciding with his campaigning in Ohio. Dressed in a decidedly blue-collar shirt, Romney appeals directly to the viewer saying that his “plan will create 12 million new jobs over the next four years, helping lift families out of poverty and strengthening the middle class”. The ad has a less combative tone than the one from earlier this week, and yet the specifics are still lacking.
The Democrats quick to respond put together a mash-up video of contradicting Romney comments, including the gem, “I like being able to fire people”. The ad ends with the Romney slogan, and in red ink, “ half of” is added before the “America” in his slogan “Believe in America”. This response by the Democrats to Romney’s new ad certainly does a better job of addressing Romney’s contradictory statements.
However, this far into the interregnum period of the campaign, it seems like these pot shot ad attacks are just an excuse for the candidates to spend a lot of money trying to stir up a big enough controversy that the media will grab onto it and thus give them free press. This begs the question, if the ads are designed with the media in mind, how can we change the media so that they are not so attracted by negativity? The question then turns on the American public because that is the audience that new media is catering to. So as much as people like to whine and moan about how corrupt political campaigns have become, we need to keep in mind that we are partly to blame. The rise of negativity in ads has some relationship to the rise in new media technologies, and yet, we have to wonder about ourselves because it is our fascination with conflict and controversy that has led campaign strategists to encourage negative ad campaigns since they know it will draw media attention. By engaging with the negative media hype we as the public are reinforcing the new normal of an increasingly negative campaign cycle. The ads may be humorous in their extreme attempts to draw attention, but ultimately when we critique the nature of campaign media, we need to first admit our own role in shaping its negative nature.