By Carten Cordell | Watchdog.org Virginia Bureau
Warning: Some ads linked in this story have strong language
ALEXANDRIA — The ad begins in a whimsical cadence reminiscent of “The Night Before Christmas,” but instead of Jolly St. Nick, actor Samuel L. Jackson guides a pensive little girl through the pitfalls of voter malaise.
Jackson, with exuberant malediction, admonishes the girl’s lethargic parents, social-media-addled siblings and frisky grandparents to “Wake the f%&$ up” and support Barack Obama.
It’s colorful and entertaining, and in this election season, it may be one the more positive ads voters see. The very voters Jackson is trying to energize with salty adjectives are not sidelined through indifference, but, rather, disengaged by an escalating arms race of attack ads designed to dissuade the opponent’s base from heading to the polls.
Any way you cut it, 2012 will be marked by an election season filled with negative ads. The Wesleyan Media Project, which tracks political advertising and is backed by Wesleyan University, the Knight Foundation and others, found that ads attacking both the Democratic and Republican nominees have nearly doubled since 2008.
“There is always this talking point out there — This is the most negative campaign ever.’ Every election, someone says that. I think this, actually, is true this time around,” said Michael Franz, co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project and co-author of “Campaign Advertising and American Democracy.”
“I think from what we have seen in the data, the level of negativity is much higher,” he said.
The strongest concentration of those attack ads are in the swing states deemed crucial to electoral success, including Virginia. TV markets such as Richmond, Norfolk, Roanoke and Charlottesville have see-sawed in and out of the top 20 cities for presidential attack ads aired for most of the summer, with more ad spending expected this fall.
“There have been so many ads run, that a lot of people just ignore them,” said Geoff Skelley of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics in Charlottesville. “The return on investment keeps shrinking because you can only saturate the market so much with political ads.”
As President Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney have remained deadlocked in various polls through much of the summer, each wave of ads has had to raise the stakes to capitalize on a perceived political edge.
Franz said Virginia is being deluged with ads because its role in the presidential election, and the balance of the Senate, could swing the policy debate for the next four years.
“Every side realizes that you have to spend a little bit more than the other side to get voters to see your ads, so you get this ratcheting up from week-to-week,” Franz said. “The reason that I think this is so compelling this time is because the stakes are so high.”
Attack ads are getting the heaviest play in swing states, but also in markets in which a Democratic urban area is surrounded by a traditional Republican base, such as Roanoke. The southwestern Virginia town has proven to be fertile battleground for both parties.
According to the Wesleyan Media Project, between April 25 and Sept. 8, Democrats aired 7,163 ads in the Roanoke market, 300 fewer than in Washington, D.C. Republicans aired even more, logging 8,630 ads aired in Roanoke, fewer than a thousand more than they aired in D.C.
“So I would say that if Obama is spending a lot of money down there, it is almost a scorched earth campaign if you will,” Skelley said. “It’s places where the president is not popular, but Mitt Romney is not the type of candidate they want to vote for either, really.
“It’s places where the Obama campaign knows they are not going to get a lot of support, but if they can kill support for Romney, it works out as a net positive for them, just to keep people from showing up to the polls.”
Whether those ads are hitting their respective marks with the electorate is tough to say, but Franz thinks the strategy is empowering both bases toward election day.
“There are a lot of factors that would suggest an increased level of engagement,” he said. “The polarized options between the parties create real choices for voters, that increases the stakes. But at the same time, there isn’t as much excitement for at least one candidate as there was four years ago. That could create a little bit of disengagement from, say, young voters that turned out in higher numbers the last time around.”
The strategy may play in Obama’s favor. A story Thursday in The Washington Post noted that while the candidates have gone toe-to-toe on ad spending, Obama has benefitted more from a unified ad blitz funded by direct campaign contributions, while Romney’s strategy has counted on ads from the GOP, PACs and Super PACs, with which his campaign cannot legally coordinate.
But while pollsters and pundits say the president has gained ground in those swing states this month, don’t expect the ads to cease. Heading into the last 40 days of the election season, both campaigns will pull out of the stops to win voters.
“Even though, if you are handicapping the race today, you would give the edge to Obama, it’s certainly not a done deal,” Franz said. “It’s certainly not something I would feel comfortable with if I was in a campaign. I would be very nervous about what the debates and Super PACs will bring and what the ads will do to voters’ perceptions in the next month.”
Samuel L. Jackson may have to start going door-to-door.
Carten Cordell can be reached at email@example.com