Pulling punches

GOP Prepares Softer Strategy in Obama Attack

Can making an attack ad less aggressive make it more effective? Republican strategists are about to find out. Daniel Stone reports.

Crossroads GPS

The narrator’s voice is soft, the images are gentle, and the plea against President Obama sounds almost desperate.

“I supported President Obama because he spoke so beautifully,” says the woman, framed to be any woman, who claims to be personally suffering under the Obama economy. “He promised change. But things changed for the worse.” Her children, initially portrayed as little kids, morph into young adults burdened by student debt and forced to move back home.

So begins the ad that will be the centerpiece of the Republican campaign against President Obama starting on Wednesday. The ad, produced by a conservative super PAC, will run in 10 swing states as part of an aggressive $25 million ad buy.

On its face, the spot is a 60-segment case against President Obama. But deeper down, it’s an experiment in effective ad messaging during an election season in which the GOP has found it challenging to critique a president who remains personally popular amidst a sour economy.

The group behind the ad is Crossroads GPS, the nonprofit organization founded by Karl Rove in 2010. It was produced with Larry McCarthy, the campaign ad guru behind the infamous Willie Horton ad in 1988 that savaged Democrat Michael Dukakis.

But after several weeks of GOP strategists debating just how far they should go to attack Obama—whether religion, his youth, and his former pastor are off limits—the new ad, innocuously titled “basketball,” presents a remarkably different tack. Less is more. And with a politician as complex as Barack Obama, a subtler, gentler critique could actually be more effective than a full body slam.

That might be because negative ads have shown to attract rabid media attention but fall short when it comes to changing voters’ minds or influencing turnout. A growing body of research, including a groundbreaking study from political scientists at Rutgers and George Washington universities, have shown that negative ads may not be the most effective way to win votes. Polling has also suggested that independents turn off to blatantly critical messaging, which can often take facts or statements out of context to mislead undecided voters.

To calibrate the script just right, the producers consulted 18 different focus groups in at least four different swing states (Missouri, Colorado, Ohio, and Florida), a rare and expensive process for one ad. Many of the voters who attended the groups echoed a similar sentiment: that they were unmoved by personal attacks on Obama. And even though they thought he was a likable man, they were experiencing difficult effects of an economy he has presided over for three years.

“This ad drives home the impact President Obama’s policies are having on American families and why those policies need to be changed,” said Steven Law, president of Crossroads GPS, said in a statement on Tuesday. “We want there to be a serious debate on the real issues people are facing in this country, and this ad expresses the human element of that debate.”

In response, Obama’s campaign played down the message of the new GOP strategy. Ben LaBolt, an Obama campaign spokesman, said that the economy has been improving since Obama took office, and voters know that.

The ad isn’t simply a pivot from negative to positive campaigning. It shows a more fundamental shift from blatant to implicit messaging. Nowhere in the minute-long spot is mention of Mitt Romney, nor does the narrator insist Obama be voted out office. The only plea is to “Tell President Obama to cut the job-killing debt and support the new majority agenda”—a vague call to action in the midst of what Obama has framed as a clear electoral choice.

But will it work? Will it bring in more money and shift the spread of independent voters? One might watch the polling aggregators next week to find out. But in the meantime, it’s a bold and pricey gamble, not to mention an admission that past advertising critical of Obama simply hasn’t stuck.