Politics ad deluge at point of diminishing returns


RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Campaign spending records for Virginia were obliterated months ago in the crossfire of nasty ads from candidates and their independent but allied super PACs, and now the bitter back-and-forth is reaching a point of diminishing returns with voters.

In unprecedented volumes, political attacks are blasting at voters through their mailboxes, over the phone, on television and radio and through the Internet. Text messages have even been sent illegally to cellphones in Hampton Roads. Much of it is underwritten by wealthy, anonymous donors who set up nominally independent groups.

Political professionals, media experts and particularly voters themselves say many people are becoming immune to it and tuning it out.

"Even if you don't mute it when it comes on, your mental switch goes straight to off," said Jimmie Massie, a Republican member of Virginia's House of Delegates, after a Friday press conference promoting Mitt Romney's presidential campaign.

That's exactly what Marilyn Salisbury does. The 76-year-old cancer survivor in Zuni in rural Tidewater Virginia said she actually researched some of the claims the ads make and is dismayed at what she found.

"Annoying is one thing, but it would be good to hear somebody tell the truth for once," said Salisbury, who plans to vote for President Barack Obama. "Honey, I've learned to mentally tune it all out."

Virginia has experienced contentious elections before. Until this year, the benchmark for high-dollar slash-and-burn campaigns was the 1994 U.S. Senate race between Democratic incumbent Chuck Robb and Republican Iran-Contra figure Oliver North. North burned through nearly $20 million to Robb's $5 million in a race Robb narrowly won.

So far this year, outside groups alone have spent more than $16 million and have millions more in reserved television time in Virginia's dead-even U.S. Senate race between two former governors, Republican George Allen and Democrat Tim Kaine. That doesn't count the millions of dollars the candidates themselves have spent.

Nor does it account for a penny of the tens of millions that Obama and Romney and all the super PACs and nonprofit advocacy groups have spent to secure Virginia, one of eight battleground states where the race and the presidency hangs in the balance.

"This is the first time that we're really experiencing a battleground state," said Bob Denton, a Virginia Tech professor who specializes in political communications.

Consider that in 2008, when the presidency and a Senate seat were both at stake in Virginia, slightly more than 7,000 political ads aired in Virginia, Denton said.

"As of this week, we're breaking 90,000 ads in Virginia — that's all candidates, all outside groups. Ninety thousand," he said, awe-struck. "We're not used to this."

It's not just the volume, but their corrosive nature as well. What little information attack ads impart is usually distorted and sometimes flatly false. They aim to undermine not only an adversary's positions, but sometimes his very character. Some are brooding, employing grainy, unflattering images and sinister implications voiced over dirge-like music. Others belittle and ridicule, like the cartoonish images and circus music in a Crossroads GPS attack on Kaine, or a League of Conservation Voters mailing that employs a photo of Allen sporting a goofy grin doctored to portray him as the dim-witted Gilligan character from the 1960s-era "Gilligan's Island" sitcom.

They can leave voters calloused and disengaged.

"The more attack ads and the more frequent the attack advertising, one side effect can be cynicism, and the people who are most likely to become cynical and say 'a pox on both houses' tend to be the more senior voters," Denton said.

Nor do attack ads have much influence on younger voters, the 18- to 29-year-old "millenials" that the nonprofit Generation Opportunity hopes to mobilize in this year's election. The demographic includes college kids and recent grads, many of them unemployed or underemployed in the weak economy, fearful about their future and annoyed by a dearth of details from candidates.

"You're not going to get the millenials with stuff like this," said Paul Conway, the president of the organization. "They're looking for something with substance."

The upshot, they say, is that October's debates will take on even more importance. Many undecided voters look to them to cut through the fog of advertising and give them answers.

The first is Wednesday in Denver between Romney and Obama. Two others follow on Oct. 16 and Oct. 22. Kaine and Allen have debates set Oct. 8 in Richmond and Oct. 18 at Virginia Tech, and both will be televised at least in some parts of Virginia.

"More than anything else, the debates allow for a comparison, and that is what's so critical for Romney," Denton said. Polls in the past two weeks have shown Romney trailing Obama in Virginia. The margin ranges from 2 percentage points in a Suffolk University poll last week to 8 percentage points in a Washington Post poll last week.

Kaine and Allen have debated three times so far in this election dating to December. Poll after poll shows them dead even, and their final two debates loom as make-or-break moments.


Bob Lewis has covered Virginia government and politics for The Associated Press since 2000. This column will take next week off and return Oct. 15.

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