Luntz: Ads about disappointed Obama voters work best with swing voters

Maybe this Romney guy is onto something.

Conservatives have to grapple with the fact that, whether we agree or not, many people find President Obama likeable. Yes, those likeability numbers have dipped recently, as they should have while Obama was launching a $120 million barrage of negative ads on Mitt Romney and refusing to denounce the idea his opponent might cause cancer in former employees.

But, the fact remains, many people think he’s a nice guy who inherited a pretty bad economic mess. Many of those voters took a chance on a relative unknown in 2008 and don’t feel he’s handled the job well, but they’re also not carrying protest signs into the fray against him. Hence, a handful of ads from right-leaning groups which take a “more in sadness than in anger” tone. I was glad to see one of this style from the RNC in Virginia in July, and now there’s some data to show the approach may work.

Americans for Prosperity’s ad in this mold has been focus-grouped among swing voters in Florida:

With swing-state denizens facing 10 more weeks of campaign ad bombardment, the conservative advocacy organization Americans for Prosperity may be cutting through the clutter most effectively with its relatively low-key attacks on President Obama.

That, at least, was the clear verdict offered by 23 Florida voters on Sunday during a focus group convened by Republican pollster and strategist Frank Luntz.

Almost everyone in the group said they voted for Obama in 2008, but they were about evenly split between Obama and Mitt Romney in the 2012 race, with several still undecided.

Luntz showed the group more than a dozen negative TV ads funded by both presidential campaigns and outside groups and asked participants to rate on a scale of zero to 100 the impact of each ad, regardless of which candidate they are leaning toward.

A majority pointed to a 60-second AFP spot — which has been running in swing states as part of a reported $27 million advertising blitz by the Koch brothers-backed group — as the most effective ad of the current cycle.

Here’s the AFP ad, called “Has President Obama Earned Your Vote?”:

The last line gave me an actual emotional reaction, which doesn’t happen to this jaded consumer of political ads very much: “I don’t feel that I helped my grandchildren by voting for President Obama, and I regret that.”

The story on this focus group goes on to say only four of the 23 swing voters found ads from Obama and his allies more convincing than those from Romney and his allies.

The RNC ran a similar ad in Virginia starting in July. The $5 million buy also ran in Colorado, Iowa, Nevada, North Carolina, and Ohio. It’s called, “It’s OK.” The kicker: “He tried. You tried. It’s OK to make a change.”

These ads wrestle with Obama’s likeability and give swing voters a way to validate a vote against him this time around. They felt good about their votes in 2008. These ads say, “Look, changing your mind about him doesn’t make you a bad person. Everyone gets it. He was exciting and fresh. But now, what are you going to do?” Given the near-constant, heavy implication in the media that opposition to Obama is mean-spirited and/or racist, countering that message with this soft touch is important.

A Crossroads GPS ad running in Florida has a darker feel, but similar message, when the voiceover plaintively says, “It wasn’t supposed to be this way.” The ad is entitled, “Tried.”

This approach may also have the benefit of closing the Romney-Obama likeability gap. A Gallup poll on attack ads this week found that 44 percent of Americans think Obama’s attacking Romney unfairly while only 40 percent believe Romney’s attacking Obama unfairly. Among independents, the number who think Obama’s attacking unfairly rises to 46 percent while Romney’s number falls to 38 percent. Up against a guy with Obama’s charisma cachet and media protection, this is an encouraging sign.

In writing this post, I found a Jonathan Capehart piece from July calling the “It’s OK” ad the “most dangerous for Obama’s reelection efforts.” He obviously comes at it from the left, and it’s rare I find myself in such close agreement with him, but I think he’s dead-on about this kind of advertising, and that’s why you’re seeing more of it.

We’ll hear plenty about Romney’s or Rove’s predilection for political hardball, but these sly curveballs may have a bigger impact.