Sunday, August 12, 2012

Battle of the Super PAC ads: will Obama Campaign bite?

The latest buzz in the world of presidential campaign ads and a short guide to analyzing the political discourse of campaign ads. 

Spending on political ads is at its highest, with the Karl Rove-backed super-PAC American Crossroads GPS coughing up the most cash for TV spots. The super-PAC spent nearly $42 million to air ads nationwide and in local markets. A good chunk of that money has been spent within the last two months alone. The group's latest ad aims to create an Obama vs Pro-Obama super-PAC gaffe, in the hopes the Obama administration will take the bait and bite.

Priorities USA Action PAC spending on tv spots by market
The Crossroads ad accuses the Obama campaign of coordinating with a super-PAC called Priorities USA Action. The ad in question never aired on any television station, yet is drawing the ire of Karl Rove's super-PAC as well as Mitt Romney and his aides, who also demand Obama denounce the ad. Although Priorities USA Action PAC is the top spender out of the Pro-Obama super-PACs, it ranks 4th overall. The group's spending ($7.2 mil this year) is dwarfed by the top Republican super-PACs and runs ads in fewer markets than its competitors.

So why bother? Because it is a really horrible thing to accuse anyone of causing someone else's cancer. Naturally, the claim has an icky feel about it, one that any candidate would rather avoid having stick around. If Obama's campaign doesn't respond to the claims that a group it "coordinates" with accused Romney of killing a woman via cancer, then Fox News and Rush Limbaugh can turn this into the message that they relentlessly hammer for a week straight. And, equally as bad, if the Obama campaign does respond in some way to the ad or the super-PAC, this too can be twisted into a character attack against Obama because "guilt by association" can still apply.

Check out the "controversial" ad in question, which once again, never aired on television.

The ad is one of several which depict horror-story testimonials from individuals who lost their jobs when Bain Capital shut down the plants they worked at. The point: that Romney's policies will hurt the middle class based on his record at Bain Capital. The ad is also serves as a character attack on Romney, that he "is not concerned" about what his company has done to the workers whose lives were affected by plant closures. However, this point about Romney's personal values is contextualized by the criticism of Romney's governance while running Bain. 

A short guide to analyzing political campaign ads

Even though the internet has become a major force for candidates and political interest groups to communicate with voters, television still remains a primary means of political communication in the US. And as William L. Benoit points out, the hundreds of millions of dollars that are poured into TV ads is a "clear indication of the significance of this kind of political message form." It is therefore, useful to have some sort of framework for analyzing these types of ads, which, no doubt, a great deal of the general and politically aware public are exposed to during the election cycle. A fundamental question to ask oneself when being bombarded by constant political propaganda is what is the function of this ad?

Benoit, who has done a great deal of pioneering research on the functional analysis of political discourse, breaks down the question of function into three possibilities: candidate appraisals or acclaims, attacks which make the candidate appear less desirable, and defense (or disputing accusations). Besides the function, the ad no doubt, expresses some theme. According to Benoit (2000), the primary topics of political campaign discourse are policy or character. These topics, or themes, can be further subdivided for content. The first topic area, policy statements, includes past policies related to governance, future proposals and the candidate's general goals, which are often vaguely defined. Character statements on the other hand, include personal qualities, such as biographical information, leadership abilities, and the candidate's ideals or values.

Political ads oftentimes will blend several rhetorical strategies, and may have multiple functions and address more than one topic area. Indeed, these categories are not mutually exclusive, yet not all ads will have more than one function or topic. This criteria can be used to determine campaign strategies by both the candidates and their satellite supporting super-PACs as well as the effectiveness of these campaign strategies in influencing the three target voter groups: base supporters, undecided voters or swing voters, and the opponent's supporters. (To learn more about this type of discourse analysis, read up on Benoit).

Using this framework for analysis, the strategic function of the American Crossroads GPS ad is clearly an attack, and makes no attempt to dispute the allegations that Romney's Bain Capital's actions (closing a Missouri steel plant) contributed to the ill health and eventual death of Joe Soptic's wife. The ad attacks Obama's character and specifically his leadership skills for not "walking the walk," or disavowing the super-PAC. The campaign's spokespeople are likewise attacked for making misleading statements about their knowledge of Soptic, and their use of him in an official campaign ad which was also critical of Romney's record at Bain Capital.

Considering that the American Crossroads GPS ad is a response to the pro-Obama super-PAC ad, we can surmise that another function of this ad is to draw attention away from the policy issues raised in the Priorities USA Action PAC ad by shifting the conversation to instead focus on character attacks against Obama and the organization that produced the ad.

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