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The most popular online political ad in America is a piece that suggests Mitt Romney’s business practices were to blame for the death of a laid-off steelworker’s wife.
Romney has accused the president of using the women’s death for political gain, and demanded he denounce it. But at the same time, a pro-Romney Super PAC has run its own ad that takes Obama quotes out of context to make Obama seem glib and clueless about job creation.
That, too, has been vetted and found to be misleading. But the ad has been seen over 25,000 times on YouTube, and began airing on television this week.
This is a new frontier of political advertising, where social media and relaxed campaign finance laws have contributed to an explosion in negative attacks in which the mud-slingers don’t have to get dirty.
“There’s more money than ever before, and more people online, and you can’t go on the Internet without running into one of these things,” said Bill Allison, editorial director at the Sunlight Foundation, a nonpartisan group that advocates for government transparency. “Social media is for people to have their own conversations, but these groups have their own money and until we have some kind of campaign finance reform that sticks, we are going to see more and more of these kinds of campaigns.”
Ads from the Obama and Romney campaigns and their allies are usually targeted at television viewers in battleground states. Most of them end up online, where anyone can watch and share them. They've included a Romney ad accusing Obama of gutting the federal welfare-to-work program, to which the Obama campaign responded with its own ad that called it "blatantly false."
Another of Obama's most popular ads online is one that attacks Romney's running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, for his plans to cut entitlement programs. A Romney ad that has gotten a lot of hits lately is one that accuses the president of declaring war on religion.
But the steelworker and job-creation ads stand out because they represent the more nefarious aspect of the trend: they aren’t truthful, and they aren’t directly connected to the candidates themselves -- even though Obama and Romney have run their own ads accusing each other of dirty campaigning.
The steelworker spot, titled "Understands," was made by a pro-Obama group called Priorities USA Action. It features Joe Soptic, who was laid off from a company owned by Bain Capital, the venture firm co-founded by Romney. Soptic tells the story about his wife dying from cancer after losing health benefits, making it seem as if the loss of his job had something to do with it. But as many fact-checking organizations have pointed out, the plant was closed in 2001, two years after Romney left Bain.
The job-creation ad, called “Another Month,” was made by the pro-Romney Restore Our Future. It splices together video of Obama making jokes and comments like “we tried our plan and it worked,” which FactCheck.org said “twists his words way out of context.”
The ads, and the angry response to them by their targets, have raised the level of vitriol in what is quickly becoming a more negative campaign.
Allison doesn’t expect it to get any better.
“The reason is, it works,” he said.