Election 2016

5 Dishonest Ad Campaigns Coming Your Way For Election 2012

These five themes will dominate the airwaves as the election season heats up.

Making Americans angry, pretending they’re political outsiders, fanning race-based fears, attacking liberals and unions, and casting Obama as a "failed" and "illegitimate" president will be cornerstones of the Republican road to retake the White House, according to an analysis of the first wave of GOP political ads in the 2012 campaign.  

These five themes can be found in the Republican television and radio ads seen from last year and into next Tuesday’s Florida primary, as broadcast by the GOP’s presidential candidates or their allied super-PACs. Whether candidates have since dropped out is irrelevant, because this first wave of ads is a test-marketing phase to see what sticks.  

“You will need to wait until the end of March, maybe April, before it starts getting really negative,” said Shanto Iyengar, a Stanford University professor of political science and director of the Political Communication Laboratory. “What the advertising people do is treat the first month or so almost like a test laboratory.” 

Theme 1: Incite and inflame voter anger.

The 2012 GOP candidates have broken new ground in seeking to inflame voters—and not just the Republicans who will vote in their caucuses and primaries, but independents who voted for Obama in 2008. There’s Ron Paul, seeking to blow up federal government agencies and comparing people who would not do so to lapdogs. There are super-PACs saying Obama is Jimmy Carter in disguise. There’s Karl Rove slamming Obama for the administration investing half a billion dollars in Solyndra, a solar energy company that failed. There’s the supposedly reasonable Jon Huntsman comparing the US economy to Greece and telling people they may soon lose their jobs. There’s Rick Perry attacking gays in the military and saying liberals are targeting school prayer—which has gotten nearly 8 million hits on YouTube. No one needs to convene a focus group when the Internet tells you that millions are watching that loose-lipped screed.  

“It is probably the one campaign that I have seen, in the Republican base at least, where there is an overwhelming sense of resentment and anger,” Iyengar said. “I wouldn’t want to use the word hatred, but there is clearly a lot of ill will out there. And that is really what is propelling Gingrich to the forefront of the opinion polls. He is responsive to that desire for a combative candidate who 'puts the president in his place'.” 

Theme 2: Run as anti-Washington outsiders.

The next big trend is an oddity in Republican political circles: the candidates running as outsiders who claim to be somehow unattached and independent of Washington’s halls of money, power and influence. Ron Paul called Gingrich a serial hypocrite for his inside-the-Beltway connections. Rick Perry boasted of his politically incorrect stands. And Romney described his mission to save the “soul” of America from a bad detour—needless to say under the Obama administration.  

“You tend to think of Republican candidates who are disproportionately conservative, and therefore they don’t need to have to establish any kind of credentials on how close you are to Washington,” Iyengar said. “I can’t think of any previous race where we had this kind of dynamic, where you have the two principle Republican contenders attempting to position themselves as being sufficiently distant from Washington.”  

Theme 3: Fan racial fears while attacking Obama.

You would expect any party out of power to criticize the president. But the way GOP contenders are fomenting anger toward Obama, and also his supporters, is filled with messages telegraphing racial fears and the cultural superiority of Republicans. 

Gingrich’s ads have drawn the most attention for racist undertones, saying, for example, “More people have been put on food stamps by Barrack Obama than any president” and then telling a South Carolina debate audience that he would show liberals how to create jobs for poor people. Paul Harris, the UK Guardian’s astute political ad-watching columnist called the ad “dog-whistling” to southern whites. “He means Obama is black and he is helping other black Americans freeload off decent white people.” 

Stanford’s Ivengar agreed, but says Gingrich is not alone in the "us-versus-them" waters, although that next level of attacks is the next category: assailing all liberals.  

“I think this business is about how far you can go without saying, ‘Gee, Obama is black,’” Ivengar said. “I think the food-stamp line is being tested. And it is now being repeated multiple times, so clearly they have data showing that it resonates. I think the ‘European-style socialism,’ that’s a line that is being tested. And so depending on how independent voters react to that, you are going to see more of the same or maybe a more muted version once it comes to the general election phase.” 

Theme 4: Attack liberals and unions.

Attacking liberals is hardly new for Republicans, but the tone and venom directed at liberals and labor unions by the 2012 GOP contenders is almost identical to remarks telegraphing racial fears. Gingrich is most strident, attacking Romney for associating with liberals and for speaking French.  

Romney’s ads are not that much more muted when it comes to demonizing opponents. In South Carolina, Romney attacked “union stooges” on the National Labor Relations Board appointed by Obama. He attacked federal borrowing from China, calling it immoral. His allies attacked Obama’s past as a “community organizer” and a “law professor.” And Romney’s super-PAC allies' attacks on Gingrich have included Gingrich’s support for “amnesty for illegal immigrants,” seeking action on global warming, and supporting a health insurance mandate as in Obamacare. 

Theme 5: Frame Obama as a failed, illegitimate president.

The attacks on President Obama and big government—while omitting any blame for Wall Street for the country’s economic woes—are not just about policy differences. They are intentionally visceral metaphors, Ivengar said, intended to convey to voters that the Obama presidency is not just a "failure" (the publicly stated GOP view led by Karl Rove) but also to question his legitimacy as president, a less publically acceptable stance.  

“There is some residual resentment at the question that Obama is black,” Ivengar said. “There’s still a significant number of people who believe he is Muslim. And that in the Republican Party certainly, there are people who have questions about his citizenship. All of these concerns raise questions about the legitimacy of the Obama presidency… You can’t come out and say that, at the risk of alienating every independent voter. And so you have to do what Gingrich is doing. You have to use this kind of coded rhetoric. So that is where you get the references to European socialism, Saul Alinsky, and the food stamp president and so forth.”    

Unimaginative but effective?

Other political scientists who track and teach about campaign advertising say there is almost nothing in the GOP ads so far that has not been done before. But in the odd lexicon of campaign advertising—where the goal is often to provoke negativity and discourage someone from voting, as opposed to motivating them to make positive choices—campaign consultants stick with what produces reliable results. 

“In all the hand-wringing about political science being relevant, this year’s campaigners seem to have learned all too well,” said Paul Gronke, a political science professor at Reed College. “The use of implicit racial appeals—think the ‘food stamp president’—could have been scripted right out of political science research.” 

Gingrich’s "food-stamp president" ad eerily resembles an ad used by Richard Nixon in his 1972 re-election campaign where he raised the issue of school busing—taking suburban kids to inner-city schools—to foment race-based fears, and then saying on the air, like Gingrich does in his ad 40 years later, that he knows how to truly help the underprivileged.    

Political ads tend to repeat these formulas and issues because they work. Indeed, one of the first 2012 ads created by the Obama campaign defends the president’s record on energy and ethics, responding to what it says are lies and negative frames coming from wealthy Republicans. The Guardian’s Paul Harris called the Obama ad “oddly defensive” and a very uninspiring start to Obama’s re-election effort. But perhaps Obama’s consultants know very well what is coming down the road. 

Steven Rosenfeld covers democracy issues for AlterNet and is the author of "Count My Vote: A Citizen's Guide to Voting" (AlterNet Books, 2008).