Inside the debate halls, the clash may be Republican versus Republican. But offstage, conservatives are mounting a unified and expensive air assault on the candidates’ common opponent: President Obama.
Nearly a year before Election Day, Republican presidential candidates and conservative action groups are already spending heavily on television advertising aimed at casting Mr. Obama as a failure.
Their tactics, the aggressive and sometimes misleading kind not typically used until much further along in a campaign season, have led to a spat with Democrats in what is shaping up to be the most costly election advertising war yet.
In an advertisement from Gov. Rick Perry of Texas that is now running on national cable television, Mr. Perry looks directly into the camera and declares: “Obama’s socialist policies are bankrupting America. We must stop him now.”
A new commercial from Mitt Romney that ran last week in New Hampshire displays a litany of depressing assertions about the economy. “Greatest jobs crisis since Great Depression. Record home foreclosures. Record national debt.” And it renders judgment on Mr. Obama’s presidency: “He promised he would fix the economy. He failed.”
In the past six months, conservative groups like those affiliated with Karl Rove and the billionaire industrialist Koch brothers, and, increasingly, Republican candidates themselves, have spent more than $13 million on advertisements carrying a negative message about Mr. Obama, according to an analysis by Kantar Media’s Campaign Media Analysis Group, which tracks political advertising.
And it is only going to grow more intense.
“These dollar figures we’re talking about now are going to seem quaint in a few months,” said Kenneth M. Goldstein, president of the analysis group. “And they’ll seem really quaint in eight or nine months.”
$3 billion outlay?
Total television advertising spending on the 2012 election cycle could top $3 billion, up from $2.1 billion four years ago, Kantar estimates, fueled in part by the rise of independent groups that can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money on campaigns.
Candidates have previously tended to use their early advertising to introduce themselves to voters in gauzy terms. But this time around, Mr. Obama’s opponents are betting they can employ early attacks to define an image of him at the very beginning of the election season, before Democrats fully unleash the hundreds of millions of dollars being raised by the president. Their perceived advantage: airwaves not yet clogged with competing political messages.
But going negative so early also carries substantial risks. One is that many voters are not yet paying much attention to the campaign and will not do so until much closer to next November, meaning the advertising expenditures could be largely wasted. And negative messages now could alienate moderate and independent voters who blame excessive partisanship for Washington’s troubles in addressing the nation’s big problems.
Still, the Republican candidates seem eager to escalate the fight. Mr. Romney and Mr. Perry have both brushed off criticism that they deliberately distorted Mr. Obama’s words in their most recent commercials — controversies that only brought them additional attention.
Mr. Perry took remarks by the president about the need to do more to lure foreign investment out of context to suggest that Mr. Obama believes Americans are lazy. And Mr. Romney edited a video clip to put in Mr. Obama’s mouth a thought actually expressed by a supporter of Senator John McCain in the 2008 presidential race, misleadingly suggesting that Mr. Obama believes he cannot win if he talks about the economy.
The White House and its allies have hardly been shy about going after the Republicans. Democrats have already run advertisements in Arizona, Iowa and South Carolina against Mr. Romney, who, if he wins the nomination, will be the subject of an intense Democratic effort to show him as an unprincipled flip-flopper.
Priorities USA Action, a pro-Obama group founded with the help of Bill Burton, a former White House spokesman, has spent almost a million dollars on television advertisements.
Although Mr. Obama is all but certain to have a substantial fund-raising advantage over his eventual Republican rival, Mr. Burton said that in the early going, when outside groups are playing a particularly prominent role in laying out the arguments on both sides, conservatives have a big lead over their liberal counterparts.
“This is asymmetric warfare,” he said, “but we’re pretty confident that we’ll be more effective and more strategic in how we spend our money.”
Crossroads GPS, a conservative advocacy group founded by Mr. Rove and other Republican strategists, has placed the biggest bet so far on negative messages. By its own count, it has spent about $20 million this year on political advertising. Much of it was broadcast during the debt-ceiling debate this summer, when it singled out members of Congress with advertisements that portrayed Democrats and Mr. Obama as fiscally irresponsible and unable to fix the economy.
In recent weeks, the group has taken on Mr. Obama and his economic agenda, spending $2.6 million on a commercial that criticizes his support for an upper-income tax increase and suggests a split on the issue between Mr. Obama and former President Bill Clinton.
It ends with a nod to the Republican line of attack that Democrats are inciting class warfare: “President Obama, it’s time to attack problems, not people.”
Crossroads has been accused of not portraying Mr. Clinton’s words accurately. While he did express doubt that raising taxes in a sluggish economy could be effective, he said he supported the general principle of higher taxes for the wealthy.
Focus on swing states
Many of the Crossroads advertisements have been running in swing states like Colorado, Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania and have been timed to coincide with presidential trips.
“It creates a scenario where the president’s visit is greeted with a strong counterpoint to the argument he’s making,” said Jonathan Collegio, communications director for Crossroads GPS.
“And in battleground states where the issue framing is going to impact 2012, it’s critical to be making your point there early and often,” Mr. Collegio said. “There may be some value in advertising now that will be impossible to achieve toward the end of the campaign, when virtually all of the advertising on television and radio is political.”
Crossroads is hardly the only conservative group that is spending heavily on anti-Obama advertising, thanks in large part to court decisions that have allowed independent organizations to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money. Americans for Prosperity, the organization founded with the backing of David H. and Charles G. Koch, is also playing a busy early role.
The Americans for Prosperity approach has been slightly different, portraying the Obama administration as not just fiscally imprudent but also corrupt. In its latest advertisement, a 60-second spot that has been running heavily in places across Florida, Michigan, Nevada and Virginia, an announcer repeatedly names Solyndra, the government-backed solar power company that went bankrupt and has become a focus of conservative anger over wasteful spending.
Then it suggests that Solyndra’s political ties to Democrats played a role in its winning a government loan guarantee: “Is this the change we’re supposed to believe in? Tell President Obama you shouldn’t use taxpayer dollars for political favors.”
An analysis from Kantar Media showed that in recent weeks Americans for Prosperity has already spent $2.4 million buying airtime for the advertisement, which has been broadcast nearly 4,000 times.