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The Joe Ricketts Plan

- May 17, 2012

It is described here:

bq. The plan, which is awaiting approval, calls for running commercials linking Mr. Obama to incendiary comments by his former spiritual adviser, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., whose race-related sermons made him a highly charged figure in the 2008 campaign.

Will this matter?  My guess is that it won’t be effective, in the sense that it will persuade a critical number of voters to oppose Obama. Some reasons:

* The Wright episodes in the 2008 didn’t move the Democratic primary polls, despite the media frenzy.  Here’s my graph of national Democratic primary polls from 2008 (from this old post):

* The amount that Ricketts proposes to spend ($10 million) isn’t all that much in this particular race.  With hundreds of millions of dollars being spent in total, it’s far from clear why ads about Wright would stand out.  I think of the information presented in a presidential campaign as vast wide river.  It’s hard for one particular little stream or current that feeds that river to be salient.

* One way for the Ricketts ads to become salient is for the news media to discuss them.  Although the news media is always interested in negative ads, particularly ones that might be “hard-line,” the actual substance of the proposed ads — Jeremiah Wright — is old news.  So without new revelations, a la Swift Boat, I wouldn’t predict sustained media attention to the ads.

* Views of Obama have been racialized and continue to be racialized. See Michael Tesler’s work.  I’m not sure that the ad could do much more on that front.

* The old “responsive chord” theory of ads may be operative.  It’s easier to play on views that voters already have.  The problem, as Ricketts et al. realize, is that majorities of Americans (and presumably swing voters) already like Obama personally.  It seems hard to imagine that resurrecting Wright will change that wholesale.

* These kinds of attacks could backfire and help to mobilize core Obama supporters, making the net effect of the Ricketts effort essentially zero, or even slightly favorable to Obama.  This is just speculation.  But it seems important to acknowledge that any such attacks could have a two-sided effect.

And, of course, campaign advertising in presidential general elections tends to have small effects generally.  And negative ads don’t always work as intended.