Barack Obama will go on national television tonight and air a 30-minute infomercial about himself and his presidential campaign.
Several political image makers, both Republicans and Democrats, say it’s a smart move. But is there a risk of excess in it, as well?
While Obama hasn’t made many strategic mistakes in his campaign against Republican John McCain, he has, on occasion, shown a weakness for extravagance.
In July, Obama’s visits to Afghanistan and Iraq generated comforting images of the senator with military leaders and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. But his trip ended in Berlin with an image of 200,000 fans, mostly Europeans, chanting Obama’s name.
In August, his campaign navigated the minefield of the Democratic Party’s feuding families to pull off a convention that began healing the wounds between the Clinton and Obama camps. Then it came to its conclusion between two Greek columns where a triumphant Obama delivered an acceptance speech to a football stadium crowd of more than 80,000.
Today, Obama is dominating the television ad wars. As of Oct. 22, Obama placed 150% more ads than McCain in Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia, according to the Nielsen Co.
Despite all that, and despite his lead in national and most battleground polls, the campaign decided to plunk down between $3 and $5 million to buy half-hour blocks of time at 8 p.m. tonight on NBC, CBS, FOX, Univision, BET, MSNBC and TV One for delivery of his final argument to the voters.
Could it seem to some voters like overkill?
Republican political strategist Alex Castellanos says that it might. But even his advice is to go for it.
“It’s like football,” says Castellanos. “People may complain that a team is running up the score, but that team is still the one that wins.”
The Obama campaign scoffs at the idea that the infomercial is more luxury than necessity. This is, after all, a campaign scarred by its stunningly lopsided loss in the New Hampshire primary after polls had shown double-digit leads.
On the campaign trail, Obama’s warnings against complacency are taking on increasingly urgent tones. He has vowed to finish the race on offense and the infomercial is a part of that strategy, say advisers.
“With this historic election only a week away – and John McCain’s angry, desperate attacks mounting by the day – we want to make sure every voter heading into the voting booth knows exactly what Barack Obama would do to bring about fundamental change as president,” a campaign statement noted.
Jim Jordan, a Democratic strategist, says the broadcast is timed to sway late breaking, undecided voters who can often tighten or determine a close race in the final days.
“There is a discrete segment of the electorate, primarily female, who are late deciders. They care about policy and elections, but they are very, very busy. They actively tune it out until the last week or ten days. Then they go and seek and acquire information,” he says.
The trick, of course, is getting them to watch rather than click away to ABC, the lone major network that won’t air the infomercial, or to some other Obama-free cable TV station.
Politicians have had mixed success at that in the past.
Before this year’s Super Tuesday primary, Democrat Hillary Clinton broadcast a live town hall meeting on the Hallmark Channel. It was watched by 540,000 households or about 705,000 viewers, according to the Nielsen ratings.
A better parallel to Obama’s strategy could be Independent candidate H. Ross Perot, who aired 15 infomercials in the 1992 presidential campaign.
Perot’s programs drew an average audience of 11.6 million viewers, or 4.6 percent of viewers nationwide, according to Nielsen. His one simulcast on ABC and CBS on Nov. 2, 1992 attracted 26 million viewers, Nielsen found.
Ken Goldstein, director of the Wisconsin Advertising Project, said Obama may not draw as large an audience as Perot.
“Ross Perot was sort of new on the scene. People hadn’t heard of him,” said Goldstein. “I’d be surprised if there are a lot of undecided eyes or passive viewers watching the Obama video. It could be a lot of Obama house parties.”
But Goldstein and Evan Tracey, founder of Campaign Media Analysis Group, which tracks political advertising, said the real benefit to Obama could be simply the attention the infomercial draws from the mainstream press.
“It probably locks up 24 hours of the news cycle,” said Tracey. “It’s going to suck a lot of oxygen out of the room.”
Adds Goldstein: “John McCain’s only chance is to disqualify Barack Obama. He has seven days. Every day that people are talking about Barack Obama’s infomercial is a day that John McCain isn’t getting his message out.”
The biggest risk in airing the infomercials, according to the strategists, is that Obama could irritate people by interrupting their regular television viewing habits.
Joe Lockhart, a Democratic strategist, says that is less of a risk today given the hundreds of television shows to watch at any given hour.
“If this was 30 years ago, you’d be running a big risk that people who don’t want to watch it would be mad,” says Lockhart.
“The benefit is you get to make your closing argument in a dramatic way without the filter of the media. It gives you more context and texture than a 30-second or 60-second ad,” he adds.
Mike Murphy, a Republican strategist who was once a McCain adviser, agrees. “I don’t see any risk at all,” he said in an e-mail. “I’ve been urging McCain high command to do a TV show too, but….”
McCain, of course, could air his own show. Under federal law, if he sought to buy equal time, the networks would be required to sell it to him.
His problem is money. Unlike Obama, who has collected more donations than any other general election presidential candidate, McCain would be forced to pull money from a battleground state in order to pay for the national infomercial.
It’s that imbalance in resources that might touch the overkill nerve in some viewers and voters.
But Goldstein can’t imagine such a worry is even a factor in the Obama camp.
“Campaigns tend not to worry about overkill,” he says. “Campaigns, by definition, are overkill.”