Why are the presidential candidates spending so much time raising so much money? To buy TV ads. In Ad Watch, we review the results of their heroic efforts as they come out. Today: President Obama demands to see Mitt Romney's tax returns, Democrats re-air Republicans demanding to see Romney's tax returns, and Republicans accuse Obama of cronyism.
The Ad: Barack Obama, "Makes You Wonder"
The Issues: Why won't Mitt Romney release more tax returns? He must be hiding something!
The Message: Romney's only put out one complete tax return, and it revealed he had offshore accounts and benefitted from the carried interest tax deduction, giving him a tax rate of less than 15 percent. That must be just the tip of the iceberg, if Romney won't release any more returns, the ad argues. "Makes you wonder if some years he paid any taxes at all."
Who'll See It: TV viewers in Pennsylvania, where Romney has a rally Tuesday.
Who It's For: The voters who are unhappy with Obama's stewardship of the economy but aren't sold on Romney. (The Obama campaign wants to make sure they never get sold on Romney.) Over the last couple months, polls have shown as many voters approve of the job Obama's doing as disapprove, yet Obama is consistently polling a couple points ahead of Romney, The New York Times' Nate Silver explains. Liberals say it shows Romney's a weak candidate, while conservatives say it shows Obama will slip as voters pay more attention to the election. Either way, Obama wants to make Romney look as unappealing as possible.
What Everyone Else Thinks: Does Obama actually want to close any of the tax loopholes he suggests Romney exploited?
The Effect: The idea that Romney didn't pay any taxes at all -- which we have no evidence of -- will definitely catch viewers' attention. But other than that, it's a standard boring ad with ominous music and a sarcastic narrator. The "Firms" ad the Obama campaign released over the weekend, which features headlines about Romney's offshore accounts to the soundtrack of Romney singing "America the Beautiful," had almost the exact same message but was much more interesting and unique. It has 1.2 million views. This one will not reach that. C
The Ad: Republican National Committee, "The Obama Connection"
The Issues: Obama's bundlers -- the people who package a whole bunch of campaign donations into huge sums -- got government loans and other deals.
The Message: Steve Westly raised $500,000 for Obama, then companies Westly invested in got loans from the government. "What does Obama like?" Westly says. "Here's what he likes: wherever the federal government is putting money. And let me tell ya, whatever he likes, I like."
Who'll See It: It's a web ad, so only reporters and people seeking this stuff out.
Who It's For: Reporters, so they'll cover the Romney campaign's attack, launched this week, on Obama's cronyism.
What Everyone Else Thinks: The Romney campaign is only able to make this attack because Obama makes his bundlers' names public. Romney does not.
The Effect: The ad features a chart flashing across the screen with enough specifics to allow the target audience to do some Googling and write some stories. But it's kind of boring. B-
The Ad: Democratic National Committee, "Even Republicans Agree: Mitt Romney's Hiding Something"
The Issues: The same as Obama's: Why won't Mitt Romney release more tax returns? He must be hiding something!
The Message: A whole bunch of Republican commentators -- George Will, Matthew Dowd, Bill Kristol, Michael Steele -- have said over the weekend that Romney must release more years of his tax returns. The only guy who seems to have seen them was John McCain, during the 2008 vetting process for his running mate. And he picked Sarah Palin, so….
Who'll See It: Reporters. It's a web-only video with a secret link.
Who It's For: Reporters covering Romney, so they'll ask him a whole bunch of questions about his tax returns, and if they don't get an interesting answer, they'll ask more Republicans about Romney's tax returns until they find a new one who demands they be released.
What Everyone Else Thinks: John McCain also saw Tim Pawlenty's tax returns, and still picked Palin. Correlation ≠ causation!
The Effect: It is striking how many conservatives suggested Romney's hiding something on the Sunday talk shows. But the ad is nothing more than a decent montage. C+