Political ads bombard viewers, but to what effect?

ORLANDO, Fla. – Is there any escape from all those political ads in the most hotly contested states in the three weeks before the presidential election?

The TV ads come in rapid succession and at all hours – in the middle of newscasts, soap operas and talk shows. They cover everything from jobs to education to trust, and they’re sharply negative.

It’s all enough to turn off voters, leaving them frustrated and annoyed.

"It’s just way too much," says Scot French, a history professor at the University of Central Florida. He lives along the swing-voting Interstate 4 corridor that will play an important role in deciding whether President Barack Obama or Mitt Romney wins the state, and perhaps the White House.

French is quick to criticize both political parties, calling the homestretch advertising deluge "a game of sowing confusion among those who are confusable."

This is the risk facing the candidates and their allies as they spend huge sums of money before the Nov. 6 vote. It’s a risk that both sides are willing to take, given that polls show the race remains close nationally and in the most competitive states such as Florida.

By the end, the campaigns and independent groups will have spent about $1.1 billion on television advertising this year, with $750 million already allocated in the handful of states likely to determine the outcome of the contest – Colorado, Florida, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin, the Kantar-Campaign Media Analysis Group estimates.

Florida tops the list, with more than $150 million spent by both sides so far.

At least some voters tuned out long ago. In interviews last week, many cited the negativity and lack of specifics in the commercials; others said they had already decided which candidate to support and didn’t need to be persuaded.

Indeed, many of the commercials at this late stage are aimed at those voters who have not yet locked in on their selection. The target audience includes people such as Felicity Rusnak, a stay-at-home mom from Orlando. But Rusnak, 40, says she pays no attention to the ads and will rely on other sources of information to make up her mind.

"The ads I just find entertaining," Rusnak said. "The debates and what I read about are going to affect my decision. I need to know where the candidates stand."

There’s no doubt that TV advertising has the power to shift voter perceptions, particularly when a candidate is not well known. Romney prevailed in the Republican primaries after he and his allies buried his two main rivals with negative advertising in early voting states. Obama’s team tagged Romney as a ruthless corporate raider with a flood of negative advertising in the early stages of the general election. The ads may have shaped perceptions in states such as Ohio, where Obama has held a narrow lead in polling for weeks.

Even so, the unprecedented level of spending this year on ads hasn’t changed many minds, according to one analyst.

"There’s not much bang for the buck," says John Geer, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University who studies presidential campaign advertising. "The public is pretty much set on who they will vote for and only a tiny slice is up for grabs."

That was the finding of his YouGov Ad Rating project, which screens political commercials with representative sample of 600 voters, including an oversample of 200 swing voters, who judge them for their fairness, believability and emotional reactions. Few ads, he said, really "move the dials."

Not that the candidates and their backers aren’t trying their best to do just that.

In the final weeks, Obama’s team is running an ad warning that Romney would cut Medicaid money for nursing home care. "We have a president who won’t let that happen," the ad says.

Romney primarily is running a spot in which he promises to boost the economy through manufacturing, energy and cracking down on China.

"Let me tell you how I will create 12 million jobs when President Obama couldn’t," Romney says.

Both sides are being buffeted by independent groups.

Romney is getting a big assist from two super political action committees, Restore Our Future and American Crossroads. The pro-Obama Priorities USA Action is running an ad saying Romney would cut early childhood education if elected.

Among those who aren’t watching is Paul Gentille, a 67-year-old Obama supporter from St. Petersburg.

He said he tuned out the ads months ago. "Everyone I know has already made up their mind. The ads are kind of annoying," he said. "It’s a shame to see so much money being spent."

On the other side is Julie Harris, also of St. Petersburg.

The 33-year-old stay-at-home mom said she always planned to support Romney and that his ads made her "more enthusiastic" about doing so. One particular Obama ad stuck out to her: the ad assailing Romney’s pledge to end federal support of public television and the Sesame Street character Big Bird. Even though she’s a fan of public TV, she says that ad won’t affect her vote.

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