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Ad Wars Heat Up as Campaigns Sharpen Tactics

August 7, 2008 at 6:25 PM EDT
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Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama are taking jabs at each other through a series of television ads, which are drawing attention on both the political and pop culture stages. Two analysts look at the themes and the spending behind the ads.
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TRANSCRIPT

JUDY WOODRUFF: The paid TV ad contest of the presidential election is heating up in states across the country.

John McCain’s campaign has spent almost $29 million since mid-May, and Barack Obama’s camp spent almost $34 million since June 20th.

For more on the themes and the spending strategy behind those spots, we’re joined by two ad-watchers. Darrell West is vice president and director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution. He’s the author of the book “Air Wars: TV Advertising and Election Campaigns.”

And Evan Tracey, who monitors ads for TNS Media Intelligence, a nonpartisan media research firm that tracks political and public affairs advertising.

Thank you both for being here.

And, Evan Tracey, to you first, you say that you already discern a strategy out there on the part of the McCain camp and the Obama camp?

EVAN TRACEY, TNS Media Intelligence: Yes, Judy, it’s interesting. Both Senators McCain and Obama had very similar strategies in the primaries, where they bet early with a lot of TV dollars in the early states that got them on their eventual rolls to their nomination.

Since then, Senator McCain has spent most of his money in the traditional battleground states, the Iowas, the Ohios, the Pennsylvanias, the Michigans.

Obama is also in those states, but he’s trying to expand the playing field by targeting states like Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, and states also like Montana, Alaska, and North Dakota, really red states, foundations of the Republican battleground strategy.

So Obama is looking to expand the playing field; McCain is looking to contract it.

The strategy behind the ads

Darrell West
The Brookings Institution
We're seeing a lot of early negativity in this race. This race, when you look at the ads, almost looks like October, because you have nasty ads, misleading campaign appeals, statements being taken out of context, but it's only August.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And no way to know whether this is a temporary strategy or not?

EVAN TRACEY: Well, we'll see after the Republican convention, because that's really when the battleground becomes no longer a game of smoke and mirrors and it becomes, "This is where we're going to fight this out between basically Labor Day and Election Day."

So right now, again, the strategy is really designed for Obama to get this as big a playing field as he can get it, so his money advantage that he's expected to have, post the conventions, can really go to work.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You've also, Darrell West, seen, discerned a strategy, as you describe it, on the part of these two candidates?

DARRELL WEST, Brookings Institution: I think what impresses me is the early advertising, just the absolute amount of dollars that are being spent now and the diversity of ads that are being run.

I think, when you go back to the 2004 presidential campaign, one might argue that Republicans in part won that election in August when the Swift Boat ads came out and attacked John Kerry.

So we're seeing a lot of early negativity in this race. This race, when you look at the ads, almost looks like October, because you have nasty ads, misleading campaign appeals, statements being taken out of context, but it's only August.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, well, let's look at a couple of the ads that are already running. First of all, this is one of John McCain's ads. It was released just two days ago. And it's titled "Broken."

TV COMMERCIAL NARRATOR: Washington's broken. John McCain knows it. We're worse off than we were four years ago. Only McCain has taken on Big Tobacco, drug companies, fought corruption in both parties. He'll reform Wall Street, battle Big Oil, make America prosper again.

He's the original maverick. One is ready to lead. McCain.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), Arizona: I'm John McCain, and I approve this message.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Darrell West, what do you make of this? He's clearly trying to separate himself from President Bush.

DARRELL WEST: Absolutely. And the important thing is in politics you always have to know what your weakness is. In McCain's case, his weakness is George W. Bush. If this election becomes a referendum on Bush, McCain loses.

So what you see in this ad is McCain trying to create separation, pointing to his voting record, saying he took on his party on tobacco, on campaign finance reform, and more recently on torture, and now climate change. And so he cannot let Democrats portray him as Bush's third term.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Evan Tracey, what do you see in this ad? And how widely is it airing?

EVAN TRACEY: Well, it's just getting started. We've seen it in a handful of the battleground states so far. I suspect it will be part of his rotation for at least the next week and all of his target states.

But, you know, really, the strategy here behind this ad is he got a little traction with his earlier celebrity ads when they kind of knocked the Obama campaign off-message.

But now the McCain campaign's challenge is -- they can turn this into a referendum on Obama. They can make undecided voters take a little bit longer to make up their mind, but they ultimately have to remind undecided voters what they're for, what John McCain is for and all about.

So he's looking for separation, but he's also, I think, looking to sort of change the dynamic a little bit from the celebrity ad.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right. Well, now let's take a look at -- this is an Obama ad that responds, in fact, to that McCain ad we just saw. This one is titled "Original."

TV COMMERCIAL NARRATOR: He's the original maverick.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: The president and I agree on most issues. There was a recent study that showed that I voted with the president over 90 percent of the time.

TV COMMERCIAL NARRATOR: John McCain supports Bush's tax cuts for millionaires, but nothing for 100 million households. He's for billions in new oil company giveaways, while gas prices soar, and for tax breaks for companies that ship jobs overseas. The original maverick or just more of the same?

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), Illinois: I'm Barack Obama, and I approve this message.

Obama links McCain, President Bush

Evan Tracey
Campaign Media Analysis Group
These are what you would call pretty much stock political ads. And that's probably a little bit of a risk for the Obama campaign, because they want to be able to stay above the fray.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Darrell West, what do you make? This is an attempt to put John McCain right back in the corner with George W. Bush.

DARRELL WEST: This an ad that I like to refer to as the Siamese twin strategies, because Democrats clearly are trying to portray Bush and McCain as two peas in a pod. Democrats really do want to run against Bush; they don't want to run against McCain.

But I think what's interesting is the visual aspects of the ad. You're going to see that picture of McCain and Bush repeatedly throughout this campaign.

But the ad also uses McCain's own words against him. And that's one of the most effective advertising tactics, to basically use a credible messenger, which is your opponent.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Evan, where is this ad airing? And what do you make of it?

EVAN TRACEY: It's suspected that this will go into at least, at minimum, all the states that McCain is running his "Maverick" ad. This is just a classic rejoinder on that point. They don't want to give up this ground. They want to get the race back on to where it started, which is trying to make this a referendum on Bush.

So I suspect you'll see, again, as Dr. West said, just about everywhere Obama is. This is going to be a central theme.

But he's got to be careful, because, again, his candidacy has been built on nontraditional politics. And these ads look a lot like good, old political spots.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Meaning what?

EVAN TRACEY: Meaning that they look like classic negative spots that go and use the opponent. They've got, you know, the transition and the music.

So, in other words, these are what you would call pretty much stock political ads. And that's probably a little bit of a risk for the Obama campaign, because they want to be able to stay above the fray. So you've got to watch the transition that the campaign uses the rest of the way out.

The celebrity theme against Obama

Darrell West
The Brookings Institution
McCain hasn't quite decided how he wants to go after Obama. Is he a celebrity who doesn't really know anything, he's not up to the job, he's inexperienced, he's not ready to lead?

JUDY WOODRUFF: We're going to look now at another McCain ad. And this one just started airing yesterday. It is titled "Family."

TV COMMERCIAL NARRATOR: Is the biggest celebrity in the world ready to help your family?

The real Obama promises higher taxes, more government spending, so fewer jobs. Renewable energy to transform our economy, create jobs in energy independence, that's John McCain.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: I'm John McCain, and I approve this message.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, Darrell West, this picks up on the theme you mentioned a minute ago, the celebrity theme that he's trying to use against Barack Obama. He first ran out -- it was the Britney Spears, now almost infamous Paris Hilton ad. This is a continuation of that.

DARRELL WEST: It is a continuation, Judy, but I think there's an internal inconsistency in this ad, because what voters don't like about celebrities is that they're vacuous and they don't know very much about the substance.

But the ad then goes on to address the substance problem by saying Obama does have substance, but it's the wrong substance. He's a tax-and-spend liberal. And so I think the ad has this internal tension.

McCain hasn't quite decided how he wants to go after Obama. Is he a celebrity who doesn't really know anything, he's not up to the job, he's inexperienced, he's not ready to lead? Or is he actually a very substantive individual, just that he's a tax-and-spend liberal, and that's the wrong message for America?

JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you see this one, Evan? And, again, same question: Where is that one running?

EVAN TRACEY: Well, that -- the first celebrity ad, the one with the Britney and Paris footage, aired in all of McCain's states and it was at one point 100 percent of its rotation...

JUDY WOODRUFF: Battleground states.

EVAN TRACEY: ... in all of his battleground states. It was the -- they put all their money behind that one message for about a week.

This is, just like the HeadOn commercials that make everybody so annoyed, they're going to pound away this theme that he is a -- that Obama is a vacuous celebrity, and then try and basically bait-and-switch back into some issues.

In other words, like the first ad was, while you were sort of reconciling this charge of Barack Obama and America's favorite party girls, he was hitting you with a tax message.

This ad is designed to do the same thing, continue on that theme, take out the America's favorite party girls, but then sort of weave it back into another tax message. So I think they like the way this is testing. Otherwise, I don't think they would use it to the extent that they've used it thus far.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So do you see the internal inconsistency here that Darrell West just made?

DARRELL WEST: Well, we don't necessarily grade the ads on content as political observers, but, I mean, this is definitely a theme and a message that they feel is connecting. I suspect they've tested this, they like the way it's reacting with voters. And I think they're going to hammer away for a while.

Drawing in uncommitted voters

Evan Tracey
Campaign Media Analysis Group
A couple of years ago, Bush tried to be political during the Olympics and got panned for it with an ad. I suspect the candidates will stay far away from any, you know, controversial or negative themes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, let's now finally look at a second Obama ad. This one is titled "Pocket."

TV COMMERCIAL NARRATOR: Every time you fill your tank, the oil companies fill their pockets. Now Big Oil is filling John McCain's campaign with $2 million in contributions, because, instead of taxing their windfall profits to help drivers, McCain wants to give them another $4 billion in tax breaks. After one president in the pocket of Big Oil, we can't afford another.

Barack Obama, a windfall profits tax on big oil to give families $1,000 rebate, a president who will stand up for you.

I'm Barack Obama, and I approve this message.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, this is the issue that is on everybody's mind: energy. How effective?

DARRELL WEST: This is a classic populist-style campaign. This is the type of ad designed to really energize your base and to draw the uncommitted voters who've not yet made up their minds into it.

You know, any time you have an ad attacking Big Anything, you know where it's going: Big Oil, Big Money, Big Banks. It's basically a classic Democratic ad saying, "Hey, they, those Republicans, they don't represent the little guy. We represent the little guy."

JUDY WOODRUFF: What do you make of this one?

EVAN TRACEY: Exactly the same thing. I mean, this is -- you know, this is part of the playbook, you know, get a villain, put "Big" in front of it, and run hard at it. Energy is the number-one theme across all political advertising this year.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And where are the Obama people running this so far?

EVAN TRACEY: This ad, again, has just started. It's going to be, I'm sure, in all of his states at this point. You know, they're starting to see more messages come out. Obama's spending is going up significantly on a day-over-day basis. So I think this one is going in rotation probably for the next week.

JUDY WOODRUFF: One other thing I want to ask you about, Evan Tracey. We see both candidates now have bought broadcast airtime during the Olympics. How typical is that?

EVAN TRACEY: It's not typical. I mean, this is -- again, in an unusual election, this is another unusual move. You almost never see candidates use network television, because it's too expensive, doesn't reach into just the target states.

I think this may be an issue where both candidates probably have more money than there is TV time to buy. Olympics is a great vehicle. It brings in a -- really, an audience with as many eyeballs as they'll have between now and November that lines up perfectly with likely voter demographics.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what kind of ad should we look for? We don't know yet what those ads are going to be.

DARRELL WEST: It probably won't be highly partisan nor negative attacks, because the Olympic audience is not a very political audience. It's not like running an ad during the evening news.

So it'll probably appeal to try and fill in the blank. It's really designed, I think, to go for people who typically aren't engaged in the political process, but it shows this is a year where we're likely to have a big boost in voter turnout.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So you have to be careful when you come on after track and field or swimming or whatever the sport may be?

EVAN TRACEY: Exactly. A couple of years ago, Bush tried to be political during the Olympics and got panned for it with an ad. I suspect the candidates will stay far away from any, you know, controversial or negative themes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, Evan Tracey, Darrell West, thank you both.

EVAN TRACEY: Thanks, Judy.

DARRELL WEST: Thank you.