Battle takes to the air, causing some to switch off


This campaign has seen an ugly spree of tit-for-tat attack ads in swing states, writes CARL O'BRIEN,in Richmond, Virginia

THE MUSIC is sombre, the lighting dark. A succession of earnest young faces appear on the screen. “During the last four years, we were told things would get better,” says an African-American student.

“Reassured by the countless slogans,” chimes another young woman, “I voted for president Obama. I voted for hope, but what I got was a bleak future.” Then, viewers hear the following familiar voice: “I’m Mitt Romney, and I approved this message.”

Seconds later, there’s another. Grainy, fast-edited footage of Romney’s election debate flashes across the screen. A narrator intones gravely that the Republican candidate won’t come clean on tax plans that will end up crushing the middle class.

“If you can’t trust him here?” the gravelly-voiced narrator says, as the camera lingers on the debating stage, “how can you trust him here?” An image of the Oval Office fades into view. Then, another familiar voice fills the air. “I’m Barack Obama, and I approved this message.”

And so it goes in Virginia. A furious air war is being fought between the two campaigns in this swing state. More advertising has been aired this year than in any previous presidential campaign. And from both sides, the message is almost entirely negative and increasingly personal.

It’s a spectacle that most of the country is being spared, thanks to a pattern of swing-state ad spending that is largely bypassing major cities such as New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, where the election outcome isn’t in doubt.

Even by US standards, this has been a particularly ugly campaign fuelled by record amounts of money. It’s estimated that some $60 million has been spent in Virginia alone so far on more than 11,000 TV advertisements.

Kantar Media, which analyses television advertising, examined all the commercials related to the presidential race that ran over a week recently. Of the 222 different ads, only three had a positive message, and they were all Spanish-language commercials.

In Virginia’s state capital, Richmond, not a single positive presidential campaign message ran on television over a two-week period over the summer. Yet Kantar Media found that attack ads were run 4,504 times during the same period.

Much of the reason for the frenzied level of attacks is that everything is to play for in Virginia. Latest polls show Obama’s lead narrowing to a single percentage point, well within the margin for error.

But talk to Virginians, who have been on the front lines of this advertising onslaught for months now, and all you hear is frustration at a campaign that has degenerated into name-calling and distortion.

At the Short Pump town centre – a maze of shopping plazas and enormous car-parks to the north of state capital Richmond – shoppers just wish it was all over.

“They’re just negative and irritating,” says William Schmidt (73) from nearby Spotysylvania. “I just wished they’d stop. Millions are being spent on these commercials, at a time when some people don’t have basic amenities like decent clean water.”

“I believe in discretion,” adds his wife, Geralyn (67). “I don’t like the tone of them, so I just change the channel or turn the TV off.”

Fed up they may be, but there’s no sign of the aerial bombardment easing. Both parties – and aligned groups – announced they raised hundreds of millions of dollars last month, the bulk of which will go on fuelling the air wars.

The commercials are just part of the picture. Residents also talk about the unsolicited phone calls from both campaigns, mysterious voicemails criticising candidates, and being assailed by armies of campaign workers bolstered by out-of-state allies such as trade unions and interest groups.

The candidates themselves have also been visiting regularly as part of an aggressive outreach strategy. The state has logged more than 50 visits so far by the presidential candidates or their wives. In the past week, both candidates have held numerous rallies in the state.

It’s unclear whether the attack ad strategy has been working. Recent polls showed little change in recent weeks, until Romney’s successful television debate. In the meantime, voters will have to put up with the ads until November 6th, when voters go to the polls.