Can negative ads backfire on Obama?


Negative ads work. But can they backfire?

Heres’s GST steel ad, one of several in which the Obama campaign takes aim at Romney’s business record:

My story this week notes some of the push-back that the ad drew from Democrats including Bill Clinton. Analysts I spoke with for the story said that it’s normal for incumbent presidents to strike a more negative tone in their bid for reelection than in their first campaign, but that this is trickier for Obama whose first campaign was about hope, change and a new kind of politics. (Remember the Will.I.Am video “Yes We Can?” It was not an official campaign video but it set to music an Obama campaign speech:)

Here is a recent Web ad in which Obama campaign manager Jim Messina strikes a more positive tone — and gives supporters a pep talk. (He tells supporters to remember that Obama was down in the polls in summer 2008. It’s true McCain got a bump after the GOP convention, but for most of that campaign Obama was ahead of McCain):

For more Obama campaign videos click here.

Romney campaign videos are here.

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Can negative ads backfire on Obama?

  1. The best attack ads should undermine an opponent’s strength. In theory, going after Romney’s line about being a job-creator should be obvious. However, these ads (the Bain attack line in general) don’t get at the core of Romney’s perceived competence on the economy. The point they make is that Romney doesn’t care about the average American. The thing is that most Americans already believe that to be true. But they still think Romney is better, or at least equal to Obama on the economy, because they think he’s smart and able to make tough decisions (if you replaced those steelworkers with federal bureaucrats talking about how Romney took their jobs, Mitt doesn’t look so bad).

    The other thing is that the ads make people think about an issue that is a loser for Obama – jobs. America currently has its lowest employment ratio since the early 80s. Unemployment is falling largely because workers are so discouraged they are giving up on their job searches (and yeah there’s some deft alchemy you can use to claim Obama has a better jobs record than Bush, but when you need deft alchemy to beat the least popular president since polling began, you’ve got a problem).

    That said, negative ads may be Obama’s least worst option. As GHW Bush learned in 1992 you can’t run on his foreign policy accomplishments – “so, ya killed Osama, but he’ll still be dead if we elect Romney, right?” Obama can’t run on domestic policy, because his jobs record is poor and his signature reform (Obamacare) is opposed by the general public 60-40.

    I think a more effective set of negative ads would focus on substance (it still pays to be negative – Americans are so polarized that rallying the troops pays off better than winning over swing voters). Simply ask: what is Romney’s plan to fix the economy? It’s actually pretty vague, and consists of 1. tax cuts 2. ??? 3. A lower deficit (has Romney offered any specifics on stuff he’d cut?) and a fixed economy. Are taxes really the reason businesses aren’t adding jobs nowadays – tax rates are at postwar lows. Let voters draw the obvious subtext that Romney is clueless on how to fix the economy, and would simply rather rich folks get the wishbone than poor people as America does its best impression of a power in serious decline.

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