President Barack Obama's uninspired performance at the first presidential debate has led to a drop in his poll ratings and a surge for GOP challenger Mitt Romney. But one benefit for the president from his mediocre debate showing is that it provided little fodder for attack ads from the Super PACs and "dark money" groups planning to spend tens of millions in the final weeks of the election.
Deluge of Spending Expected in Final Weeks
Even before the October 5 debate, with Obama still holding a clear lead over Romney, Democrats had reportedly been living in fear of the GOP deluge of spending in the final weeks of the election -- indeed, the majority of outside spending is expected to come in the election's final month. Karl Rove's American Crossroads, for example, had approximately $32 million in cash to spend in the month before November 6. The Koch-founded-and-led Americans for Prosperity has seemingly endless finances with which flood the airwaves. The National Journal reported on September 20 that this "coming financial flood is a source of concern among Democrats, who privately acknowledge that the money is an unknown factor in a race many [of] them otherwise feel confident about."
But on the Republican side, there has been concern that spending tens of millions on more ads would have little impact on voters. "People just aren't paying attention to political ads the way they used to," Republican pollster David Winston told The Wall Street Journal. "Independent" Republican groups, like Super PACs and dark money nonprofits, have outspent Democrats three-to-one in the past year trying to frame Obama as a failed president. But the spending appeared to have long ago hit the point of diminishing returns, as Obama's job approval ratings have steadily gone up despite the steady flow of attack ads.
In the final weeks of the election, spending tens or hundreds of millions on more ads attacking the president on the same messages -- high unemployment or failing to deliver on campaign promises -- would likely have little impact on the polls, as the relatively small pool of undecided voters in swing states would have heard these messages before. The Romney campaign and its Super PAC and dark money allies needed something new. And the relatively unscripted nature of the debate might have presented the best opportunity at finding the new angle of attack.
GOP Desperate for New Way to Attack Obama
Obama's opponents had been searching for that new angle for months. The Romney campaign and Rove's American Crossroads based ads around a misrepresentation of Obama's "you didn't build that" line, and made it the theme of the Republican National Convention, but the strategy failed to resonate for anyone but dedicated partisans. In September, the Romney campaign invoked racially-charged themes through an inaccurate ad campaign claiming Obama had eliminated the work requirement from welfare. The evening before the first presidential debate, right-wing media began hyping a five-year-old video of Obama speaking to a largely black audience that Tucker Carlson's Daily Caller and the Drudge Report deemed the "Race Speech" and Fox News hyped as "some of the most divisive class warfare and racially charged rhetoric ever used by Barack Obama," but which had been widely reported on in 2007 and revealed nothing new or interesting about the president.
Perceived gaffes or slipups in debates -- such as Al Gore sighing and rolling his eyes in 2000, or Gerald Ford denying Soviet presence in Eastern Europe in 1976 -- have long been used to attack opponents. But the unlimited spending unleashed by Citizens United and its progeny means that these slipups can be amplified like never before.
Uninspired Debate Performance Gave Little Fodder for Attack Ads
The Obama campaign warned supporters on October 8 that "Romney-allied outside groups have already lined up more than $23 million in television spending for this week alone." But those ads do not appear to feature any new Obama soundbites, suggesting that even if Obama's debate performance did not help his standing in the polls, he has given his opponents little new material to work with.
The few clips from Obama's debate performance that have appeared in ads are heavily edited and don't leave a lasting impression. The dark money group American Future Fund appears to be the only group running a TV ad featuring images of Obama from the debate, and even it had to splice together several segments to portray Obama as indecisive. The Republican National Committee has posted a web-only ad called "smirk" that strains to make a point (although that point is unclear) using images of Obama's facial impressions. An ad from the Romney campaign only features footage of the GOP candidate during the debate, but no statements from the president.
Soundbites from Romney's debate have given allied Super PACs a rare opportunity to run positive ads, but it also has given the Obama campaign and its supporters plenty of attack ad material. The Obama campaign is out with a new round of ads featuring debate clips that portray Romney as a liar, and another attacking Romney for his "Big Bird" comments.
President Obama likely did not intend to throw the debate. But in the post-Citizens United world of unlimited spending, this type of short-term loss could pay dividends by not giving opponents a new line of attack to be repeated over the next several weeks. The real danger is that both candidates will be so concerned about seeing their statements distorted in attack ads that Americans will have to suffer through another two rounds of boring debates.