Politics & Government

Summer political ads prove this election year is different

John McCain campaigns for Latino voters on July 14, 2008.
John McCain campaigns for Latino voters on July 14, 2008. Carolyn Kaster / AP

WASHINGTON — In what's usually a slow political month, television viewers have been bombarded this July with reminders of John McCain's patriotism and sensitivity to Latino voters as well as Barack Obama's energy policies and heartfelt commitment to the needy.

This summer slew of political ads is a dramatic change from past presidential campaigns.

"In the old days — pre-Internet and pre-24 hour cable news — nobody campaigned until after Labor Day, other than local candidates making county fair appearances and Fourth of July parade marching," said Kim Gregson, an assistant professor of communication at Ithaca College in Ithaca, N.Y.

"We assumed voters were busy outdoors in the summer," she said, "doing family stuff."

They still are, but several factors have combined to jack up the political volume.

The most prominent reason for the new noise level is the memory of the 2004 Swift Boat Veterans for Truth ads. The group began running ads in early August that accused Democratic nominee John Kerry of embellishing his Vietnam War record.

Kerry's camp responded immediately, but many of his backers echoed the thoughts of Joseph Erwin, a Democrat and the president of a Greenville, S.C., advertising and marketing firm, who recalled that the response was "not emphatic enough."

The spots became fodder for TV and radio talk shows, particularly those with conservative bents, and raised doubts in some voters' minds about the candidate just as many of them were starting to take a closer look.

"Frequency and reach are keys to effective ads. The lesson was you really can't start too early," said Kenn Venit, a television news consultant.

Neither the Obama nor the McCain campaign would discuss its ad strategy publicly.

Since July 1, McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, has had two Spanish-language radio spots about his support for a free-trade agreement with Colombia. Another, for the same audience, has McCain Navy buddy Frank Gamboa saying that the Arizona senator shares Hispanics' "conservative values and faith in God."

Two other general-audience McCain ads are running. "God's Children" praises the role of immigrants in American life. "Love" plays on cultural differences, showing Vietnam War protesters in the late 1960s and recalling how, at the same time, McCain was "Shot Down. Bayoneted. Tortured" in Vietnam.

Obama is also all over the airwaves.

"Dignity" describes how the Illinois senator "turned down big-money offers" in order to help families in Chicago neighborhoods "stung by job loss." He's also contrasting his energy plan with McCain's in an ad that's running in four key states.

Others have joined the ad wars. The Republican National Committee is on the air lauding McCain's "balanced" energy plan. The AFL-CIO is running a TV ad in select battleground states attacking McCain for his stand on Iraq. The Matthew 25 Network, a Christian activist group, is running an ad supporting Obama's effort to push faith-based initiatives.

Analysts agree that this barrage matters, even with television viewing levels down from peak fall, winter and spring periods, for several reasons:

  • The candidates badly need to create positive images. Polls routinely show that Obama is still largely unknown, while McCain is running as the candidate of a widely unpopular political party.

By reminding viewers of his military service, McCain "is trying to shore up a broad constituency" that reaches beyond Republicans, said Allan Louden, an associate professor of communication at Wake Forest University, in Winston-Salem, N.C.

Obama has to explain where he stands and show that he has the stature to be president. "He's a great unknown, and a lot of people are still trying to learn the truth about him," said David Carney, who was the White House political director under President George H.W. Bush.

  • The candidates are testing marketing strategies. Venit pointed out that the word "change" lurks in the background at almost every Obama rally and ad. McCain stresses his independence and military service.
  • "They're both building a brand," said Erwin, the ad agency head.

    Gregson of Ithaca College said that was important.

    "The theory says that people keep running tallies in their head. They hear something they like, and that agrees with what they already believe, and their basic belief is strengthened," she said.

  • Voters are paying unusual attention to the campaign. A Pew Research Center survey released last week found that 72 percent of voters had given "a lot of thought" to the election, up from 58 percent at this point in 2004 and 46 percent in 2000.
  • "It's amazing how much people know," Louden said. "With information moving so quickly, ads are a way of not only reinforcing images the campaigns want to promote, but countering negatives."

    "This is an act and react business," Erwin said. "When you build a brand, you can't let somebody else take away from that building process."Last week, after the RNC ran an ad blasting Obama for offering "no new solutions" to the energy crisis, Obama struck back, saying that he has a comprehensive plan.

    Later in the week, after the RNC ran an ad in Virginia and Ohio charging that Obama would raise taxes on people earning "as little as" $32,000 annually, Obama launched his own ad saying that the claim was untrue.

    Obama voted in March for a budget measure that would repeal many 2001 and 2003 tax cuts, meaning that many taxpayers would pay higher rates, although the resolution didn't call for higher taxes on single people who earn less than $41,500 annually or couples who make less than $83,000 in taxable income. It hasn't become law.

    Obama has said that he wouldn't raise taxes on families that earn less than $250,000 a year.

    The ad bombardment is expected to continue nonstop. Both camps realize, Carney said, that "if you throw enough out there, maybe one or two things will break through."


    McCain's ad "God's Children"

    McCain's ad "Love"

    Obama's ad "New Energy"

    Obama's ad "Dignity"

    The Matthew 25 radio ad

    The Republican National Committee's energy ad

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