Obama ad hits Romney Swiss bank account. Effective?

A new attack ad accuses Mitt Romney of sending jobs overseas and stashing his cash in a Swiss account. Political scientists are dubious that attack ads are as powerful as some think they are.

Jim Cole/AP
Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney gestures as he speaks at the state fishing pier, in this April 30 photo, in Portsmouth, N.H. The Obama campaign has just released a new attack ad that accuses Romney of sending jobs overseas and stashing his cash in a Swiss bank account.

The Obama campaign has just released a new attack ad that accuses Mitt Romney of sending jobs overseas and stashing his cash in a Swiss bank account.

The 30-second spot, titled (surprise!) “Swiss Bank Account,” begins on the defensive. It describes as “over the top” and “erroneous” a recent commercial from a GOP-leaning super PAC, which charged that billions of dollars from President Obama’s energy projects have gone to factories in foreign countries.

“President Obama’s clean-energy initiatives have created jobs in America, not overseas,” the narration says.

Then the ad pivots, and the rhetorical knives come out. “What about Mitt Romney?” appears on the screen.

As a corporate CEO, Mr. Romney sent jobs to Mexico and China, says the ad. It charges that as Massachusetts governor, he outsourced state jobs to a call center in India.

“It’s just what you’d expect from a guy who had a Swiss bank account,” the spot ends.

Is the ad effective? That’s not going to be clear for a while, if ever: Figuring out the particular reasons that presidential candidate poll numbers rise and fall remains more a dark art than a science. For the record, political scientists are highly dubious that attack ads such as this are as powerful as pundits and consultants think they are.

That said, as communications professionals, we have a couple of comments about the spot. First, it’s got too much going on. The initial defensive burst is confusing, particularly when it’s followed by the quick cut to Romney, swooshing graphics about jobs in Mexico and China, and so on. We think the only thing voters will remember is the phrase “Romney Swiss bank account.”

Of course, from the point of view of Democrats, that would be fine. They’re happy to drive home the theme that Romney is a Richie Rich who’s got Swiss bank accounts and a car elevator in the Cayman Islands. Or some such.

“It’s all about turning Romney into the walking embodiment of the type of economic behavior that led to the meltdown,” writes the left-leaning pundit Greg Sargent on Tuesday on his Plum Line blog in The Washington Post.

And that’s our second point: This ad hits Romney square in his empathy gap. A recent Washington Post/ABC poll found that only 37 percent of voters think Romney “better understands economic problems people in this country are having.” Forty-nine percent thought Mr. Obama the better answer to that question.

That’s what the Obama campaign is trying to do here: define Romney as someone remote from your concerns.

Will that matter? It may not, or at least, not as much as Democratic strategists hope. “Republicans win all the time without closing the empathy gap,” George Washington University political scientist John Sides wrote recently. That’s because voters inherently see Democrats as more empathetic – but that perceived empathy is no guarantee of victory.

All the advantages on personal quality ratings won’t save Obama if the economy nose-dives, writes Mr. Sides on the FiveThirtyEight polling blog of The New York Times.

“In general, be wary of any claim that there is a single path to victory, particularly if that path involves a candidate’s personality,” he writes.

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