Recent reports about a conservative Super PAC’s plan to run attack commercials based on President Barack Obama’s relationship with his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright - and the backlash that has come as a result - has raised questions as to how much an impact ads intended to divide along racial or cultural lines will have during this election season.
Recent reports about a conservative Super PAC’s plan to run attack
commercials based on President Barack Obama’s relationship with his
former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright - and the backlash that has come
as a result - has raised questions as to how much an impact ads
intended to divide along racial or cultural lines will have during this
A copy of the proposal, which was obtained by the New York Times and the subject of a story the paper ran on Thursday, detailed a plan presented to billionaire Joe Ricketts, founder of the brokerage firm TD Ameritrade and father of Chicago Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts, to run a $10 million ad campaign featuring sermons from Rev. Wright where he made controversial comments regarding race relations. Those comments became an issue during the 2008 presidential campaign after it became known Obama had been a member of the congregation at Wright’s church, Trinity United Church of Christ on Chicago's South Side.
News of the plan led to a quick response from the Obama campaign, which released the following statement yesterday:
This morning's story revealed the appalling lengths to which Republican operatives and SuperPacs apparently are willing to go to tear down the President and elect Mitt Romney. The blueprint for a hate-filled, divisive campaign of character assassination speaks for itself. It also reflects how far the party has drifted in four short years since John McCain rejected these very tactics. Once again, Governor Romney has fallen short of the standard that John McCain set, reacting tepidly in a moment that required moral leadership in standing up to the very extreme wing of his own party.
Negative reaction to the plan came from the Romney campaign as well, which promptly released its own statement decrying the ads. The issue also drew a response from Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel,
who served as Obama’s White House Chief of Staff and is in the middle
of negotiations with Cubs owners to help provide the baseball team with
$300 million in local and state funding to renovate Wrigley Field.
In response, Joe Ricketts released a statement through his super PAC, Ending Spending Action Fund, disavowing the strategy as simply being one of many that were studied but instead preferred to focus on fiscal issues when it came to the presidential race.
The proposal – along with the negative reaction it has received – has at least momentarily shed a light on the possible tone this election cycle may take from being about a referendum on Obama’s first three years in office and the state of the economy, to one where more polarizing cultural issues such as same-sex marriage, abortion rights, and race relations dominate public debate.
As Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism Assistant Professor Larry Stuelpnagel pointed out, though the potential was there to see similar types of attack ads - proven to be an effective tool in past elections - in the coming months, it was more likely the bulk of them would come from third-party entities not directly connected to the candidates. The strategy has already been denounced by the Romney campaign, which says its focus is on the economy, an issue where the Republican candidate feels the president is vulnerable.
“Whether you agree with the President or not, most people like him, and so when you start going after him on personal issues like that it has the potential to boomerang on you,” Stuelpnagel said. “For now anyway, in the foreseeable future I would see Romney not necessarily traveling that way, but who knows what direction these super PACs are going to go in.”
According to DePaul University’s College of Communication Professor Bruce Evensen, attack ads of the nature outlined in the proposal presented to Ricketts by Republican consultant firm Strategic Perception, Inc., are not intended to sway the masses, but rather work toward rallying supporters by attempting to define an opponent before they can effectively define themselves to voters.
“If you look at how this campaign has unfolded, I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say that four out of five people who are going to vote on the first Tuesday in November already know how they’re going to vote,” Evensen said. “So really what this is an argument about – whether it’s through the internet or whether it’s through campaign ads – is two things: one, ginning up enthusiasm in your base, which was probably what Obama’s decision last week about same-sex marriage did -- it helped to energize some of his supporters on the left, and simultaneously sort of discouraging turnout for your opponent.”
It is unclear at this point what effect public decrying of personal attacks ads by the candidates will have toward discouraging third parties from airing their own commercials. As Stuelpnagel pointed out, though direct contact between super PACs and the campaigns they endorse is prohibited by law that is not to say such ads would not be welcomed by the campaigns behind closed doors.
“Under the law they’re not supposed to do it, but there could be a lot of wink, wink nod, nod going on,” Stuelpnagel said. “So really are they supposed to be in communication with each other? No, they’re not. But does it or could it happen? Sure.”