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Grading the Campaigns Six Weeks from Election Day

September 24, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Debate preparations are underway with only one week until the first 2012 presidential debate between President Obama and Mitt Romney. Judy Woodruff talks to The Rothenberg Report's Stu Rothenberg and USA Today's Susan Page for more on the strategy behind the messages coming from the Obama and Romney campaigns.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And we return to the presidential campaign and examine what the candidates must do between now and the first debate.

For that, we’re joined by our regular duo, Stuart Rothenberg of The Rothenberg Political Report and Roll Call and Susan Page, Washington bureau chief of USA Today.

It’s great to see you both again with us.

So, I want to ask you about the broader campaign.

But, Stu, first, let me ask you about what we just heard at the top of the show about these ads. All this money that the campaigns are throwing into advertising, do they feel that it’s paying off?

STUART ROTHENBERG, The Rothenberg Political Report: Well, I think they feel they have to do it.

I think they think — both think it’s an opportunity to reach voters who are undecided or weak partisans, weak supporters of the other person. But, Judy, they have been doing this for months. They have been advertising for months. They haven’t moved a lot of numbers recently.

And I think there’s some question how effective the ads are. Having said that, there’s one other thing to consider. It’s the content itself. Ari talked a lot about the dollars behind the ads, the number of ads that are running.

I think a good ad, an interesting ad, a novel ad that is communicating new information, that might move some voters. The same messages over and over again, I’m skeptical.

SUSAN PAGE, USA Today: I think definitely a point of diminishing returns on these ads, though.

You have got to have ads up, but if one candidate or the other has $10 million or $100 million more in ads, I’m not sure that makes a difference, unlike a congressional race. Presidential races get so much earned media. I mean, there’s so much coverage that…


SUSAN PAGE: By news organizations — that I think these paid ads matter less.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, are you two really saying though that all that money, tens of millions and hundreds of millions of dollars going into advertising may not be paying off for them?

SUSAN PAGE: Well, I think it’s that they think they have to do it.


SUSAN PAGE: And if on other guy is going to run a bunch of ads, you want to run a bunch of ads too.

But it’s not — I don’t think in a presidential race that’s this close and six weeks out that the ads are going to decide this election. I think the debates are much more likely to be decisive turning points than yet another flood of negative ads.

STUART ROTHENBERG: Look at what everybody talks about. People don’t stop on the street talking about the ads that are running. They talk about the news that occurs when Mitt Romney says something or a U.S. ambassador is killed in the Middle East.

That’s what is — that’s what creates, I think, opinion by the average voter.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And yet the Obama campaign talks about all the advertising it did over the summer defining Mitt Romney in a negative way.

STUART ROTHENBERG: Well, there was something to be said for the early advertising before Romney responded.

So, yes, if you have one candidate that is on the air at heavy levels, and another candidate that’s not on or much — or is on at much lighter levels, I think early on that can happen in fact.

SUSAN PAGE: Although, while the Obama campaign has had a big advantage in advertising — they advertised early and they advertised during the conventions, which the Romney campaign didn’t do — it’s still almost a tied race.

We have seen the race shifted just a bit in Obama’s direction, but it’s not as though it’s a runaway race on either side.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, that’s what I wanted to ask both of you. Here we are 42, 43 days out. Susan, is that what you think, almost a tied race?

SUSAN PAGE: I think it’s actually — it’s been a tied race, a very close race for so long. I do think in the past two weeks, we have seen it move just bit in President Obama’s direction, especially in some of these swing states, like Ohio and Iowa and New Hampshire and Virginia.

We have statewide polls that show not a big edge for President Obama, but a pretty consistent one for him. You know, there’s a history to this. In the last 15 elections, the candidate who is ahead at this point has won the popular vote every time. And, at this point, President Obama has a narrow national lead, but a national lead.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you see it?


I think we went from a jump ball three weeks now to a slight advantage for the president. I really think it’s coming out of the convention. I think the Democrats got a very small bump among a very little sliver of the electorate, but I think that matters.

So, if you compare the August and September NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, the right direction number is up seven. Obama job approval is up two. On the ballot, the president is up two. People are somewhat more upbeat. I think the race has shifted very slightly.

But in a case like this, where it’s so close, a slight shift can be a significant one.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And is that, Susan, shifting what the Romney camp has to do at this point?

SUSAN PAGE: I think it is. And I think these debates — that’s one reason these debates become so important.

Before debates, usually, both campaigns talk about how terrible their guy is at debating and what a master debater the other guy is to try to set expectations.

That is not what you see happening now. The Obama people are talking about what a good debater Gov. Romney is, but the Romney people are talking about what a good debater Gov. Romney is.

And I think that is because they need to reassure their supporters that this race isn’t over, that it’s still close, that he can turn it around, and the debates would be an opportunity to do that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, this is a different period of expectation-setting, Stu, than what we would normally see before the debate?

STUART ROTHENBERG: I think a little bit. I think Susan is exactly right that from the — I saw Robert Gibbs on television a couple days ago. And he was talking about Mitt Romney has debated so many times, and the president hasn’t debated in four years.

So, I think they are trying to lower expectations. But you don’t hear that same thing from the Romney camp.

And some of this is a need, a desire, to create some momentum on the part of the challenger, when there is, you know, so much finger-pointing, mostly by conservatives and Republicans complaining about the Romney campaign.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And there’s been a fair amount of that.

But, Stu, what about in terms of setting the table for substance? Are there things the candidates are talking about at this point to lay the groundwork for the debates?

STUART ROTHENBERG: Well, Romney is beginning this bus tour, when he’s going to be trying to get the discussion back to jobs and the economy and the president’s performance, and trying to create some momentum, a sense that they have turned the corner, that the last two weeks were bumpy, but now they’re back on message.

SUSAN PAGE: Yes, I think they’re trying to do that.

And there have of course been calls for Gov. Romney to be more specific and actually for President Obama to do so as well. But in that interview with “60 Minutes,” you really didn’t — you didn’t hear him adding a lot of specifics on even something as fundamental as his tax proposals.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Can they get away with that? Can they continue, both of them, not to be more specific than they have been?

SUSAN PAGE: Well, I guess we will find out.


JUDY WOODRUFF: In the debates.

SUSAN PAGE: We will find out in the debate and in the election.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, Susan Page, Stu Rothenberg, thank you both.


SUSAN PAGE: Thank you.