In these hot days of July, there is scarcely a moment's respite from politics.
The presidential candidates have ads on TV, and several independent groups are stepping up their effort to affect the White House and Senate races. So far, nobody has produced a roundhouse-punch of an ad like the Swift Boat Veterans ads that floored Democratic Sen. John Kerry's presidential bid four years ago.
But over the past week or so, the independent ads have begun getting sharper and more numerous.
Veterans Taking Main Stage In Ads
Even without a Swift Boat-style attack, veterans are becoming a mainstay of political ads. They're seen as powerfully credible voices, as in one ad from Vets for Freedom.
"The surge worked. The surge worked," the ads says. "Al-Qaida has been decimated, and the Iraqi government grows stronger each day. These are the facts. That cannot be denied."
Vets for Freedom is running the ad in some key presidential states, such as Michigan, New Mexico, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia. Executive director Joel Arends says the group will be doing plenty more. "We plan to spend exponentially more than this first $1.5 million buy on ads that will continue to educate the American public about the issue," he says.
As a 501-c nonprofit group, Vets for Freedom is financed with unlimited contributions from undisclosed donors. That is the same set-up used by many of the independent groups.
Veterans are speaking on the left, too — in this case, financed with union funds. The AFL-CIO organized a Veterans Council that has been airing an ad featuring Jim Wasser, who fought in Vietnam.
"Every vet respects John McCain's war record," the ad says. "It's his record in the Senate that I have a problem with. He wants us to keep spending $10 billion a month in Iraq."
The ad is up in six states. AFL Political director Karen Ackerman says they did polling and focus groups about the message and the messenger. "We feel that yes, veterans are very well respected, obviously, among other veterans, but also are credible messengers to non-veterans as well," she says.
That is true — with a caveat — says communications professor Bill Benoit. He's at the University of Missouri. Benoit says social scientists have looked long and hard at what is called "reluctant testimony." They have concluded that people get attention when they say things that they're not expected to say. "So having a veteran oppose the war can, sometimes, be a persuasive point," he says.
The big variable, Benoit says, is whether people receiving the message are still reachable, and that's a concept that's playing out in another arena of politics: faith.
Independent Ads From Religious Groups
Evangelical Christians are hearing a lot about Sen. Barack Obama, thanks to ads by the Matthew 25 Network, a political action committee that favors Obama, a Democrat from Illinois.
It's a bit like Daniel in the lion's den. Matthew 25 is advertising on Christian radio stations that draw some of the staunchest religious conservatives.
"Jesus taught us that we must listen to what a man says, because out of the overflow of his heart, his mouth speaks," the ad says. "So here are words from Sen. Obama's heart: 'I think we make a mistake when we fail to acknowledge the power of faith in people's lives."
Another ad is due out next week.
Brian McLaren is a liberal evangelical pastor who is working with Matthew 25. He says the ads aren't meant as a challenge but as a step toward reconciliation. "To have respectful ads for Sen. Obama on these conservative religious radio stations, to me, just makes a lot of sense," he says. "And I think it will change some minds. But even for minds that it doesn't change, I think it's a healing move."
And on the other side of the political divide, the Christian Defense Council is pitching its message to young evangelicals. They make up a crucial 10-to-15 percent of the faith vote, according to the coalition's founder, the Rev. Patrick Mahoney, a long-time fixture on the anti-abortion front. He describes his target group as "more progressive, younger, more open to issues like creation care and social justice than perhaps the generation before them, but are ardently pro-life."
Creation care is the evangelical take on environmentalism.
So far, Mahoney's coalition can't afford television — just a poster that tags Obama as the "abortion president." They distribute it by e-mail.
But Mahoney says TV is in the works. With digital video, his group's members intend to make the ad themselves. "So you put the commercial together — I don't know if I should be giving our strategy away, but I'll give it away — you look to buy on MTV in a local market," he says.
The coalition plans to post the ad online and encourage supporters to download it. Their hope is that supporters will then use their own money to pay for the ad to air in the local ad slots on MTV. If that works, and if it reaches those young evangelicals that Mahoney is after, it could be a template for other groups.
It could also be a new strategy as independent groups intensify their messages and their visibility this summer and fall.