COLUMBUS, Ohio--With a huge debt clock standing to his left, Mitt Romney spoke for 20 minutes and $36 million during a morning rally Wednesday at a high school in suburban Westerville. But Romney’s audience of maybe 750 Republican faithful, who patiently lined up in a light mist to go through a Secret Service security check, were nothing more than a flag-waving, sign-holding, cheering-on-cue television studio audience.
More than two hours after Romney got back on his campaign bus, NBC4 reporter Robyn Haines stood among the cleaning crew sweeping up the Westerville South High School gym to deliver her live report for the noon news on WCMH-TV here. Haines began her report on the speech with a reference to Romney’s suddenly ominous Ohio poll numbers: “This was the first stop as he continues his bus tour throughout Ohio trying to close that gap – now 10 points getting between him and President Obama here in the state of Ohio – making events like these even more important.”
Aside from a fleeting reference to gay rights hecklers, the rest of her fluffy two-minute report was almost entirely positive (“Romney spoke to a packed house, hundreds stood in line to hear his plans for a stronger middle class, his plans to fix our economy”). NBC4 then tagged on a brief and banal extract from an exclusive interview that Romney gave to political reporter Ted Hart: “I’m someone who believes passionately in the future of America and taking America on a different course than this president.”
This is the reality of the 2012 campaign: substance ends up on the cutting room floor. Voters consider local TV news a prime information source for the presidential campaign. But watching newscasts on three different channels in Ohio’s largest media market during the past 24 hours underscored how difficult it is for Romney to make himself heard amidst the clutter and the clatter of Columbus television.
Even though Westerville is fewer than 15 miles from downtown Columbus, the Romney rally was just the second story on the noon NBC4 news. The news lead was a breathless second-day update on the “likely” apprehension of a non-violent sexual voyeur known as the “Hilltop Creeper.” Columbus television, in fact, is obsessed with sexual predators. The 5 p.m. news on WBNS-10 (CBS) featured three separate stories on three unrelated incidents during the first 10 minutes of Tuesday’s broadcast.
Small wonder that political strategists (and, yes, campaign reporters) have an over-sized faith in the potency of negative TV spots. But watching them on Columbus television the way that ordinary Ohio voters do makes them seem like a cacophonous distraction, an invitation to raid the refrigerator or post a cute cat video on Facebook. During the final segment of Tuesday’s 11 p.m. news on ABC6 (WSYX), 13 campaign commercials were broadcast.
Republican Super PACs like Karl Rove’s American Crossroads (“Obama treats us like we’re his enemy”) and Democratic cause groups like the political arm of the Planned Parenthood (“Mitt Romney would turn back the clock for women”) were out there with shrill claims. But so were local candidates for state representative and Franklin County recorder. My favorite ad was a 15-second spot by incumbent recorder Daphne Hawk who promises to be “watching over your taxpayer dollar--like a hawk.”
It is hard to keep anything straight through this blur. During the commercial segment leading into the 11 p.m. news on ABC6, viewers first saw an Obama ad ridiculing a Romney get-tough-with-China spot. It was immediately followed by a version of the original Romney commercial (“It doesn’t have to be this way, if Obama would stand up to China”). Watching this discordant sequence, you almost wanted to get the TV station to show the commercials in proper order.
Sometimes the adjoining non-political commercials provided an ironic commentary on the presidential race. During the noon Wednesday news on NBC4, a Romney ad was immediately followed by a spot ballyhooing Positive Changes Hypnosis Centers. During the same broadcast, an Obama ad flowed into a we-feel-your-pain commercial for accident attorneys whom “you can trust.”
But in a state with more than 800,000 jobs tied to the auto industry, it is also the car commercials that pose a continuing challenge to Romney. Without ever mentioning Obama or the auto bailout, the continuing message on Columbus television is that American-made cars are back. “Lease the Ohio-built Cruze,” is the message in one Chevy ad and a few minutes later a frenetic Honda pitchman asks, “Why get the 2012 model when you can have the 2013 Accord -- fresh out of the Ohio plant -- for $189 a month?”
All this is, of course, impressionistic rather than conclusive. For all the obsession with winning the 24-hour news cycle, the presidential election is not won or lost within a single day. But it does seem telling that Mitt Romney came to the Columbus suburbs on Tuesday morning – and the frame for the story on local TV news was that the Republican nominee is losing by a 10-point margin in the polls.
With early voting starting next week in Ohio, cutting through the clutter becomes a necessity for Romney. But it is hard for the GOP nominee to be clearly heard by the voters when he is sharing TV time with local candidates like Daphne Hawk and car dealers all but proclaiming, “Happy days are here again.”