Post-debate presidential advertising blitzes follow opposite strategies

In the wake of the first presidential debate, both campaigns have released literally dozens of new commercials between them – the most recent being a record 18 new videos posted today on the Obama campaign’s YouTube page and official website.

It’s no surprise that the Romney and Obama campaigns have opposing messages. But what may be surprising is that the strategies behind those campaigns are even more opposite from each other than the candidates.

Opposite timing

The Romney campaign ran comparatively little advertising during the runup to the Republican convention. It had to. Though it had consistently outraised the Obama campaign, federal election laws put that money off limits until after Mitt Romney became his party’s official nominee.

They could have legally ramped up spending during September. They chose not to, reasoning that hitting harder, with more exposure, during the month before the election – when undecided, uncommitted and low-information voters start to pay serious attention – would be more effective at winning votes.

The Obama campaign, in contrast, opted for a pre-emptive strike. They advertised heavily throughout the summer, running ad hominem attack ads in the hope of defining Romney in voters’ minds as a callous, uncaring, out-of-touch plutocrat who laid off steel workers and made their wives die of cancer.

As summer polling showed, this approach worked. Romney’s percentages were down and his negatives were up, particularly in battleground states.

Until the first debate – which, commentators from both ends of the political spectrum agree, showed the challenger to be anything but the evil, tax-evading felon those ads depicted.

Opposite media

Now, the Romney campaign is spending the money it couldn’t spend before – not just online, but on television, particularly in swing states.

Some of that money’s going for national air time, but there are spots – not cookie-cutter, fill-in-the-blank commercials like those the campaign ran before, but specifically scripted and produced spots – for key states, including Ohio and Nevada.

The Obama campaign, on the other hand, is so far confining its efforts to YouTube and its website – possibly because they’re all spent out from the summer.

Opposite strategies

When a president runs for reelection, the incumbent promotes his record while the challenger attempts to make the election a referendum on the incumbent.

Not this year.

In both its old commercials and in its newest videos – the ones released today – the incumbent’s campaign works to define the election as a referendum on the challenger, while the challenger’s campaign works to promote the incumbent’s record.

Opposite messages

The Obama messages are all Romney, all the time.

Ten of the 18 newest ones are edited from debate footage and call Romney “dishonest,” “misleading,” “untrustworthy,” and a “liar.”

“After the debate Romney didn’t tell the American people the truth,” one of the videos says, “because his real plans would hurt the middle class.”

“Mitt Romney claims he wants more teachers. Not true,” says another video. “He’s been saying for months that he doesn’t want more teachers. If we can’t trust him on the debate stage, how can we trust him in the Oval Office?”

While the Obama advertising’s heavy on adjectives, the Romney commercials are heavier on nouns and verbs. Perhaps because of early surveys showing the incumbent had high likability ratings, they go after Obama’s policies, not the man himself.

One, called “Facts are Clear,” says that Obama isn’t just wasting money; he’s borrowing money, then wasting it.

A standup spot shot specifically for Ohio asks viewers to read Romney’s plan for restoring 12 million lost jobs.

In “Born and Raised in Nevada,” a testimonial airing in that state, retired NBA player Greg Anthony says he voted for Obama in 2008 but lost faith in him.

In another national spot, published on YouTube yesterday, small-business owner and 2008 Obama voter Melanie McNamara says, “[Obama] promised we’d all be able to prosper. I don’t see the prospering.”

Only one out of all the new Romney commercials has anything to do with the debates. It uses news quotes to refute the Obama campaign’s claim that the Romney tax plan would cost $5 trillion dollars and features a clip of Obama deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter saying, “It won’t be near $5 trillion” on camera.

And, of course, superPACS are getting into the act. A :30 from Americans for Prosperity is everything most political spots aren’t. It has no voice-over, no spoken dialogue whatever. The first 23 seconds are taken up by a family of four sitting silently and tensely at their dinner table. All the “conversation” during the meal is through eye contact, facial expression and body language. Finally, a super tells us why. “12.1 Million Americans Unemployed,” it says – including, by implication, the male head of household we’ve just seen.

(It’s gotten 234,662 views in two days. Though it doesn’t represent Romney campaign spending, it’s consistent with his campaign strategy. And it’s just too good a commercial to go unmentioned here.)

Opposite choices

Both Democrats and Republicans have said that this election represents a fundamental choice between two starkly opposite alternatives for this country’s future.

It’s rare in political advertising, but very appropriate, that the candidates’ advertising is so starkly different as well.

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