In early August, I flew to Dayton, Ohio, one of the most contested battlegrounds of this election. I’d come here to experience the swing-state wars for myself—not by surveying voters or taking the pulse of Main Street, but by sitting in a hotel room. I checked into the airport Holiday Inn and turned on the television. Then I pretty much didn’t move for the next 45 hours.
In the remaining 74 days until the election, Ohioans will be assaulted by hundreds upon hundreds of political ads. In terms of TV airtime bought by the presidential campaigns and their allies, Ohio was—during the week of my experiment—one of the four most saturated states in the country. The Cincinnati TV market alone placed second nationwide, trailing only Colorado Springs.
My goal was to maximize ad exposure; mainline the experience by condensing two months into two days. First, I would channel surf until I hit a commercial pod. Then I’d watch all the spots—waiting for a campaign ad to pop up—until the scheduled programming returned. At that point, I’d stalk the dial for the next block of commercials.
This hunting technique immediately paid off. I landed on the Lifetime Movie Network just as the channel was cutting to a pro-Obama ad. “You work hard, you stretch every penny,” an announcer sympathized with Lifetime viewers. The ad flashed to a photo of Mitt Romney, standing before a jet with a giant Trump logo on its fuselage. The announcer continued,
“But chances are you pay a higher tax rate than him.” (In fact, I don’t. I pay a higher tax rate than he. Because, when it comes to grammar, I’m a movement conservative.)
Over the next two days, I would hear that jarring pronoun usage error 14 different times. A second Obama spot, also about Romney’s tax plan, ran twelve times. Meanwhile, the tally of ads from the Romney campaign and its pals totaled 48—in line with the Romneyites’ two-to-one spending edge.
Occasionally I’d shift my weight on the bed or get up to pee. By hour eight, my thumb was cramped from clicking channels. I could feel my eyes itching. I became obsessed with this fleeting image of a woman in an Obama ad, comparison-shopping at a supermarket, eyeing two cans of tuna—which did she pick?! My brain craved content. I yearned for story arcs that lasted more than 30 seconds. I found myself lingering on an episode of “Maury.”
Something happens when you’ve been exposed to the same short video clip 21 times; your mind untethers, shifting its focus from the script to the symbols. I began to dissect Romney’s body language. Why, I wondered, was this spot so intent on establishing a side-by-side spatial relationship between Mitt and the viewer? Mitt chauffeurs us, gripping the wheel, looking at the road, throwing sidelong glances as he lists his accomplishments.
“Aha,” I exclaimed: a classically male, shoulder-to-shoulder, barstool conversational alignment—in tune with Romney’s big advantage among male voters. By contrast, President Obama is usually gazing directly into the camera lens, locking in eye contact as though he and the viewer are on a promising first date.
The television flickered all night. A disembodied “I approved this message” weaved through my dreams. First Mitt with his hurried, nasal inflection, and then Barack with his slower, calmer line-reading. I roused myself to the sounds of Kristi Yamaguchi in a super PAC spot, praising Romney’s deft handling of the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics.
Sometime during the second day, I began to notice how fantastic Romney looks—in Obama’s ads. Mitt wears a crisp suit and a confident grin, the accoutrements of the out-of-touch plutocrat. (He looks like a multimillion bucks, you might say.) In his own spots, he wears open-collar, windowpane shirts and concerned facial expressions. He even visibly gulps at one point while talking to a voter. I imagine his campaign team debating: Edit out the gulp because it makes Mitt look wussy? Leave it in because it humanizes him? Zoom in on the Adam’s apple?
At this level of ad saturation, every swing-state viewer unwittingly becomes a campaign strategist and meta-critic. You examine each teensy directorial choice and piece of visual minutiae. You no longer watch the ads to see what the campaigns have to say for themselves, but to assess the tricks the campaigns have deployed to present themselves. In this second-order approach to voting, you become convinced that the man most qualified to be president is the man most capable of impressing you with his media tactics. In other words: You judge Mitt not because he gulps or does not gulp, but rather because he chooses to let you see or not see that gulp. You succumb to the mania for process over substance that has infected the entire American political discussion. Thirty hours into the experiment, unwashed and squinting, I briefly fled my room in agitated panic. I expected to see a clutch of voters in the parking lot, stressing about health insurance—pie charts and all-caps newspaper headlines floating above their heads. I bought a sixer of tallboys at the gas station across the street, pounded a beer, and then crumpled the can into a pipe and smoked the pot I’d hidden at the bottom of an Advil bottle in case of emergency. Ads blended with other ads in the haze of the high. Romney’s tax rate. “1-800-BAD-DRUG” lawsuits. Obama’s deficits. Erectile dysfunction. I fell asleep, twitchy and frightened, the television blaring.
I checked out the next morning, but not before I caught two more ads on the local news wake-up shows. I felt deep sympathy for Ohioans, Coloradans, Virginians—how they must resent this wash of propaganda. It must make them angry. It must make them sad. It must make them disgusted with politics. It must make them want to give up, not vote, tune out, or just change the channel and watch some “Maury.”