As part of a strategy that has gone mostly unnoticed since it began, Barack Obama is prosecuting an intense, slashing radio campaign against John McCain in some of the nation’s most competitive electoral battlegrounds.
The wave of attack ads against McCain includes some of Obama’s most aggressive spots on hot-button issues including abortion and stem cell research and has occurred as the McCain campaign has drawn serious scrutiny and criticism over the questionable content of its own negative ads.
“That’s what radio’s good for: going under the radar,” said Evan Tracey, who tracks advertising sales at the firm TNSMI-CMAG. “Obama has to be a little more protective of his brand than McCain does, so there may be a choice that they’re making there that we don’t want to be pounding McCain as hard as we can on our highest-profile medium that has our picture on it,” he said.
While Obama’s television advertising has also been increasingly negative, it doesn’t appear to be quite as scathing and inflammatory as some of the radio spots. There’s no way to independently verify that, however, since the campaign tends not to release its negative television ads to the media.
An Obama aide said the lack of public notice is not intended to conceal the negatives but, rather, to avoid confusing the campaign’s public message on any given day.
In Boulder, Colo., the radio onslaught proved forceful enough that Bret Saunders, who hosts the morning show at the adult rock station KBCO, spent some time on the air last week addressing a novel theme: some listeners’ irritation at a barrage of radio ads, some harshly negative, from Barack Obama.
“There was a perception with some listeners that they’re hearing a lot of Obama ads on KBCO because KBCO is in the tank for Obama,” he said after the show. “I told them that we have a legal obligation to sell political advertising to whoever wants to buy it.”
That morning, Obama’s campaign was attacking John McCain for spending taxpayer money in Iraq. But the radio assault began during the Republican National Convention, when McCain’s poll numbers among women shot up with the choice of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate. Obama launched a hard-edged attack on McCain’s position on abortion.
“John McCain’s out of touch with women today,” says the ad’s narrator, a nurse. “McCain wants to take away our right to choose. That’s what women need to understand. That’s how high the stakes are.”
McCain’s camp and the Republican National Committee replied in kind with an ad on a related theme.
McCain supports “stem cell research to help free families from the fear and devastation of illness,” says the ad’s female narrator.
Obama again responded.
“Stem cell research could unlock cures for diabetes, cancer and Alzheimer’s, too. But John McCain has stood in the way. ... He’s opposed stem cell research,” says the narrator of the ad, which was widely criticized as misleading, as McCain has not backed away from his recent support for the practice, though he opposed it a decade earlier.
McCain “picked a running mate who’s against it. ... And he’s running on a platform even more extreme than George Bush’s on this vital research,” Obama’s ad continues.
Another Obama radio spot addressed a different hot-button issue that hasn’t appeared in his television advertising: gun control.
“Barack Obama and John McCain will both make sure we keep our guns,” says the narrator, Ray Schoenke, who heads a Democratic-leaning gun owners group. “But what about keeping our jobs?”
In yet another ad, Obama suggests McCain is more committed to the Iraq economy than to the American one.
“Well the Iraqi government is finally spending some of its $79 billion surplus from oil,” says the narrator of a spot airing around the country on Wednesday.
The narrator goes on to describe a lavish Ferris wheel being constructed in Baghdad, with carnival sounds in the background. “John McCain wants America to keep spending $10 billion a month in Iraq when we should be rebuilding America.”
And Obama has used the radio for sharp, timely attacks on local issues.
“It was McCain who used his influence in the Senate to help foreign-owned DHL buy a U.S. company and gain control over the jobs that are now on the chopping block in Ohio,” says one Ohio radio spot released in August, which also notes that McCain’s campaign manager, Rick Davis, lobbied for DHL on the deal.
A Wisconsin ad, also released in August, attacked McCain for failing to support a local business, Harley-Davidson, despite attending a motorcycle rally.
“American-made motorcycles like Harleys don’t matter to John McCain. Back in Washington, McCain opposed the requirement that the government buy American-made motorcycles. And he said all buy-American provisions were, quote, ‘disgraceful.’ Surprised? You shouldn’t be. This is the same John McCain who supported billions in tax breaks for companies who ship American jobs overseas,” the ad says.
On Monday, McCain responded again, attempting both to rebut the ad and tarnish Obama’s brand.
“Barack Obama and his congressional allies’ stem cell attacks are simply not true,” says the ad.
“Leading news organizations call their attacks ‘misleading,’ ‘out of bounds,’ ‘manhandling the truth,’ ‘wrong.’”
McCain aide Michael Goldfarb told Politico that “there are a lot of really alarming things voters don’t know about Barack Obama, the least of which is that he’s running patently false radio and TV ads across the country.”
Obama’s campaign has defended the literal truth of the ad.
“That sort of attack doesn’t mean much coming from one of the most negative and dishonest campaigns anyone can remember, but the assertion is ridiculous,” said Obama spokesman Bill Burton.
Unlike with television advertising, there’s little formal tracking of the relatively inexpensive and diffuse radio advertising. Radio producers and listeners said anecdotally that Obama’s ads have aired more broadly, and a McCain aide said Obama is “outspending us dramatically” on radio.
In any event, Obama’s under-the-radar attack strategy seems to be working. Since McCain went fiercely and publicly negative in August, polls have shown that most voters think the Republican is running a far more negative campaign. A CBS/New York Times poll released last week found that a majority of registered voters, 53 percent, say McCain is spending more time attacking Obama than he is explaining how he would govern. By contrast, 56 percent of voters said Obama is spending more time explaining his plans.
“With TV, you have to kind of use a velvet hammer,” said Tracey. “With radio, you can be a lot more aggressive.”