2012 Campaign Ad Wars: Reviewing the First Shots Fired

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It's only December 2011, but the presidential race ad war has begun early this season, as Republicans aim to define Obama before the airwaves are fully saturated. Without the consent of Newt Gingrich, the tea party, or Dr. Strangelove, the media long ago declared Mitt Romney the winner of the Republican nomination. Mitt Romney supports that message, and recently launched his first attack ad against President Obama. The Democratic National Committee was quick to strike back. As they exchanged fire, Ron Paul launched a brutal assault on Gingrich, the race's current leader. 

Throughout the campaign season, we'll be comparing the presidential-campaign attack ads on the basis of their style, veracity, viral potential, and other qualities. Below, in our first installment, New York theater critic Scott Brown reviews some of the opening salvos.

Title: “Believe in America”

Maker: Mitt Romney

Target: Barack Obama

Message: Barack Obama has failed. Obamacare kills jobs and takes bread out of adorable white kids’ mouths. Mitt Romney will make government smaller, which will, in turn, dry hump the flaccid private sector back to full tumescence.

The Challenge: Attack “Obamacare” without reminding people that your candidate invented “Obamacare.”

Style: Standard attack ad, which means Se7en-style footage of the fell foe, tense ticking-clock score, break-of-dawn tension release when the candidate appears to deliver us from evil. 

Veracity vs. Mendacity: 
The ad quotes Obama saying, “If we keep talking about the economy, we’re going to lose.” He was actually quoting John McCain, back in 2008. Romney’s camp says the deception was intentional to get across a greater truth: That Obama is guilty of the same thing he accused his rival of. 

Negativity Index: Pretty negative, but not personal.

Viral-ity: Medium. (Hundreds of thousands of views.) Most of the interest in the ad came from the micro-controversy surrounding that out-of-context Obama quote and the whole doublethink rationale behind lying-to-tell-the-truth. Which, come to think of it, sounds pretty on-brand for Romney.

Title: “MittvMitt”

Maker: The Democratic National Committee

Target: Mitt Romney. Both of them!

Message: Mitt Romney is a flip-flopper, Mitt Romney is a RINO, Mitt Romney is an opportunist and a mealymouther who lacks the courage of his convictions. Don’t nominate him, wing nuts and tea partisans! Pick someone unelectable instead! Or, better yet, just stay home until 2016. 

The Challenge: Cut a trailer urging people not to see a movie they don’t particularly want to see anyway. And it’s hardly news that Romney displays a yogic limberness with his ever-changing political positions. It’s practically his signature.

Style: Micro-documentary

Veracity vs. Mendacity: The Romney campaign didn’t waste much time contesting the ad, which consists almost entirely of cherry-picked but essentially indisputable clips of Romney baldly contradicting himself, like a reed in the wind of the latest poll results.  Instead, Team Mitt took it as a compliment, holding it up as evidence of how badly the DNC would like to see their man lose the nomination to a more polarizing candidate.

Negativity Index: Very negative, with a side order of contempt (suggested by the goofy carnival music that kicks in about halfway through, not to mention the clips of late-night comedians taking turns at the Romney speed-bag) .

Viral-ity:
Medium. (Hundreds of thousands of views.) It’s the DNC’s first big ad, and the first blatant admission that they see Romney as the presumptive nominee. He has every reason to be flattered. And every reason to be scared: He really does have a long and embarrassing video-trail of saying whatever is expedient. And he did kinda invent “Obamacare.” Whoops.

Title: "Newt Gingrich: Serial Hypocrisy"

Maker: Ron Paul

Target: Newt Gingrich

Message: Newt Gingrich is the ultimate Washington insider.

Style: Movie trailer for a thriller.

The Challenge: Check Newt's steady, post-Cain rise by reminding tea party voters that their newest squeeze wasn't frozen in carbonite in 1994: He's a lobbyist in everything but name and a seasoned Beltway player with shaky conservative bonafides and a history of apostasy.

Veracity vs. Mendacity: Pointing out Newt's well-established record as a richly compensated Freddie Mac (ahem) historical adviser, Paul deploys multiple clips of Rush Limbaugh — to anyone outside of a Republican primary, this wouldn't enhance credibility. To this crowd, it's catnip. 

Negativity Index: Paul, as a libertarian, doesn't go after Gingrich's spotted private life, but then, he doesn't really need to. He's got the lobbyist thing, the immigration thing, the climate change thing, and Gingrich's in famous quote equating radical tax-cuts and government shrinkage with "right-wing social engineering." 

Viral-ity: Practically ensured. Paul has an active online following that's basically Anonymous without the Guy Fawkes masks.