As Goes the Stock Market, So Goes McCain

GOP Attack Ads Fall Flat as Economy Sinks and Obama Continues to Rise

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WASHINGTON ( -- Beset by negative public reaction from a declining stock market that is fast translating into the political arena, Sen. John McCain's campaign is finding itself in familiar territory. Once left for dead in the primaries, the GOP team is struggling to right itself even as it is vastly outspent by Sen. Barack Obama's campaign. Now, however, there may be no time for a comeback.

Obama vs. the Dow
Source: Bloomberg, Intrade
Last week, the McCain campaign and the Republican National Committee launched a barrage of attack ads questioning Mr. Obama's involvement with one-time Weather Underground leader Bill Ayers, lambasting the Democratic candidate's "blind ambition," and associating him with voter fraud and the collapse of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

Yet Mr. Obama continued to rise in poll after poll.

"Every time the Dow goes down 2%, Obama goes up 2%," said Steve McMahon, a Democratic ad consultant who is doing ads this year for Democratic House candidates and the Democratic National Committee.

Immediately after the parties' conventions, focus groups showed that associating Mr. McCain with President George W. Bush and other Republicans wasn't exactly working.

Staying the course
Now, however, Mr. McMahon said it seems Democrats don't have to say much.

"What is playing is, 'I'm a Democrat, and he's not. He supports George Bush.' It works everywhere, for Obama, for Senate candidates and House candidates."

The McCain campaign last week offered a substantive proposal on mortgages, but it continued to do all it could to change the debate by turning all its advertising to attack messages. A study by the Wisconsin Advertising Project last week reported that, starting Sept. 28, virtually every McCain ad was a negative attack. Those attacks could get more personal this week as Mr. Obama and Mr. McCain have their last debate. So far Mr. McCain has reserved most of his attacks for ads while holding off in one-on-one debate encounters.

Meanwhile, the McCain campaign pulled advertising from Michigan a little over a week ago and reallocated that spending last week to Indiana, Virginia and North Carolina -- all traditionally Republican states but all of which have become closer, according to polls.

And while the McCain campaign struggles, the Obama campaign keeps forging ahead, vastly outspending the Republicans.

Big purse
Evan Tracey, chief operating officer of TNS Media Intelligence's Campaign Media Analysis Group, said the Obama campaign spent $3.5 million on advertising on Oct. 6 alone. At that pace the Obama campaign would spend $85 million in the campaign's final 28 days, as much as the McCain campaign is spending in nine weeks. Because the McCain campaign took government financing, it is limited on what it can spend, though the Republican National Committee is helping.

"When you have this kind of message imbalance when you are behind, there's not an easy way to get yourself in the lead," Mr. Tracey said.

The difference in spending started to show in major purchases last week. The Obama campaign spent nearly $1.8 million to buy 30 minutes on NBC and CBS to air a half-hour program on Oct. 29. It also spent $672,500 to advertise on NFL games from Oct. 7 to Oct. 19.

The Obama campaign declined to reveal details of the Oct. 29 program.

John McCain
Photo: Mandel Ngan (top), Emmanuel Dunand

While the McCain campaign struggles, the Obama campaign keeps forging ahead, vastly outspending the Republicans.

At a speech last week in Milwaukee, some supporters of Mr. McCain urged the candidate to go even further with the negative attacks. But there were some suggestions that Mr. McCain might be hurting himself with independents by talking about Mr. Ayers rather than the economy or who has the best ability to lead the country out of its economic woes.

'Off brand'
Alan Siegel, founder and CEO of Siegel Gale, a brand-identity agency, said Mr. McCain's attacks are ringing as "off brand," working against his overall theme.

"His theme is the Straight Talk Express, yet he's talking about things that are irrelevant and bullshit at this particular time when what people need is more straight talk and guidance. He's hurting his reputation and doing himself a disservice. ... People are frightened about their future and their 401(k)s. What he should be doing is saying 'Here are some things that you should be doing, and here is how to address it.'"

While both the Obama and McCain campaigns have devoted most of their ad buys to battleground states, they also recently have been buying some network TV ad time.

At ABC, the Obama camp has spent $609,000 for news, daytime programming (including "The View" and soaps such as "All My Children") and some prime-time programming. It has orders for $2.3 million in spending on the network in the next two weeks. On Fox, the campaign has bought a $3 million package that includes sports and entertainment programming. At CBS, the campaign -- besides buying the NFL -- has spent $1.7 million on prime time; $437,400 on daytime; and additional money on late night, daytime, news and college football. The McCain campaign has also bought on CBS, spending $412,500 for news and $275,900 for daytime. On ABC, the McCain campaign has bought nearly $2 million in time on news and some daytime, most of which has already used.
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