WASHINGTON, D.C. -- When it comes time to score Mitt Romney's first general election ad, the independent arbitrators will rank it as a "negative" spot.
The ad, released on Friday morning and set to air in key swing states, outlines the specific policies that Romney would pursue in the Oval Office, from lowering taxes to signing off on the Keystone pipeline. Discussing the spot while on the trail Thursday, Romney declared that, "it will be a positive ad about the things I would do if I were president."
But the ad also includes several sharp contrasts with the president. And because it mentions Obama by name, when it comes time for grading, it will not get the positive label Romney suggested.
"Most politicians especially at the national level don't mention their opponent unless they are drawing a contrast that is unfavorable and with this ad if that is not implied it is certainly inferred by the viewer," said David pesci, public relations director for the Wesleyan Media Project at Wesleyan University. "This would hit our criteria for negativity."
Pesci noted that there are "gradations" within the positive-to-negative continuum. Simply contrasting records isn't inherently a negative attack. Moreover, policy contrasts are different than character contrasts: one dealing more in substantive debate, the other a form of strictly partisan conflict. But a politician rarely, if ever, contrasts his record with that of his opponents in a non-negative way.
"In almost every case coders code contrast ads as negative," said Ken Goldstein of the Campaign Media Analysis Group (CMAG).
And the Romney ad is no different: accusing Obama of blocking jobs and pursuing less-than-sensible health care reform.
"We would count the reference to Obamacare as a mention of Obama, and therefore this ad would be classified as “contrast” ad in our coding scheme," said Erika Fowler, also of Wesleyan Media Project. "We divide ads into three categories of tone: 1) promotional ads only mention the favored candidate, 2) negative ads only mention the opponent (save for the 'paid for by' line), and 3) contrast spots include both a mention of the favored candidate and a mention of the opponent. This spot is clearly within that last category by definition even though it otherwise has the feel of a promotional spot. In a dichotomous classification (that CMAG uses for example), the Obamacare reference would make this ad a negative one as it mentions an opponent."
The Obama campaign's main ad right now does not mention Romney by name. And while it opens with a contrast, the contrast is not between the president and a fellow politician but between the economy in 2008 and the economy now. The re-election campaign has, however, also made a much smaller ad buy that is strictly negative, attacking Romney for his time at the private equity firm Bain Capital.