Democrats' Ads May Make Punching Bag of Paul Ryan

Romney's VP Choice Unlikely to Change Presidential Ad Landscape All That Much

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Here comes Mitt Romney's running mate Paul Ryan -- and here comes the first barrage of ads in recent memory targeting a vice-presidential pick.

In selecting Mr. Ryan, a conservative darling who advocates for a major overhaul of Democratic sacred cow Medicare, Mr. Romney has set up his ticketmate to be the first in the multibillion-dollar campaign advertising era to inspire a negative air assault in races up and -- this is where things get really interesting -- down the ballot.

He also has provided Senate and House Democrats with what President Obama's campaign has not: the opportunity to nationalize their 2012 races by taking on the Republican running mate's policy proposals directly.

To be sure, Sarah Palin in 2008 and Dan Quayle 20 years earlier were the subject of late-night derision, but not of a massive barrage of negative ads. Joe Biden (2008), John Edwards (2004), Dick Cheney and Joe Lieberman (2000), and Al Gore (1992), who in many cases had lengthy Washington careers, never put forth policy proposals like Ryan's that so united the other party in vitriol.

In the great unresolved debate over how much the identity of the running mate matters to the American public, the dearth of advertising inspired by the pick has been our biggest clue that to date, for the most part, it has not.

Paul Ryan
Paul Ryan

Assuming that trend changes, it should prove an interesting ride for Mr. Ryan, who isn't accustomed to being a national -- or at least, a 70-market -- punching bag. The beneficiary of comfortable re-elections since his first win in 1998, he has cut very few campaign ads himself and has been the subject of even fewer. More ads are released during a quiet week in this presidential race than have aired, total, in Ryan's last several races.

His 2011 proposal to transform Medicare from a defined-benefit to a defined-contribution system was seized upon by Democrats and weakly defended by Republicans when it was introduced, but the timing of it, in the midst of the non-election year instead of closer to Election Day, kept Democrats from unleashing a barrage of ads to make political hay of it.

His selection won't lead to substantially more spending on advertising with two exceptions.

After months of on-and-off air assaults by GOP groups in Wisconsin, Mr. Ryan's home state, Republicans will surely launch a more sustained offensive in order to exploit their new potential advantage in a state that had been leaning toward Mr. Obama, and Democrats may now need to advertise to defend their lead.

And Florida, which has seen less advertising compared to the other seven true battleground states, will now become ground zero in the war over Medicare. In a recent reminder of just how sensitive the issue is in this state, a May 2012 US Chamber of Commerce ad accusing Democratic Senator Bill Nelson of supporting "$500 billion in Medicare cuts to fund" the President's healthcare law had Nelson's campaign lawyer demanding that Florida stations reject the ad. Instead, they aired it. Nelson was one of 21 Democratic lawmakers around the country targeted by that campaign.

In just the four months since April 10, when Senator Rick Santorum dropped his bid for the Republican nomination and the Obama v. Romney die was cast, Kantar Media CMAG has tracked an astounding 79,000 spot occurrences in nonpresidential races around the country that contained messages critical of President Obama. Only 4,000 spots contained positive mentions of him.

Driving this huge 79,000 figure are derogatory references to "Obamacare," which has become the Republican symbol of alleged runaway government spending and overreach. The attacks have been so utterly pervasive that earlier in August, "Obamacare" was the subject of dueling TV ads by Republican candidates for an office not exactly central to the issue: secretary of state of Missouri.

By comparison, until now, we've seen no spots in nonpresidential races that have been critical of Mr. Romney, a development that typically happens further into the fall. As damaging as the Obama campaign's Bain-based attacks may have been to Romney's own standing, they haven't provided Democratic candidates and groups involved in Senate and House races with an issue to throw in the faces of their Republican opponents. Mr. Ryan provides Democrats with an unexpectedly early-arriving advertising call to arms.

Given that Romney-Ryan starts off at a polling deficit, Republicans had better hope their negative-to-positive ad ratio is better than 20 to one.

Elizabeth Wilner is VP of Kantar Media's CMAG, which tracks and analyzes broadcast TV advertising content, placement and spend.
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