When it comes to campaign ads in the presidential race, there are two Americas.
In most of the country, just about the only time campaign ads for the presidential candidates are on TV is when there's a news story about the ads. In the handful of battleground states that are likely to decide the outcome of the election, though, viewers can't escape arguably the most intense early barrage of ads in American political history.
"In a swing state, you're part of the presidential campaign," says political scientist Darrell West, author of Air Wars. "Everywhere else, you're outside."
In a new USA TODAY/Gallup Poll of swing states, an overwhelming majority of voters remember seeing campaign ads over the past month; most voters in other states say they haven't. In the battlegrounds, one in 12 say the commercials have changed their minds about President Obama or Republican Mitt Romney - a difference on the margins, but one that could prove crucial in a close race.
At this point, Obama is the clear winner in the ad wars. Among swing-state voters who say the ads have changed their minds about a candidate, rather than just confirmed what they already thought, 76% now support the president, vs. 16% favoring Romney.
"We gave them new information," says Obama campaign manager Jim Messina. "Romney had been out there claiming success as governor," but Democratic ads have prompted voters to "take a look at his record" on job creation and as head of the private-equity firm Bain Capital. Messina also credits a $25 million buy for a positive ad "about the challenges the president inherited and what we had to do to move this country forward."
To be sure, Obama's ads have done more to win back Democrats than to win over independents or Republicans: Thirteen percent of Democrats say their minds have been changed by ads, compared with 9% of independents and 3% of Republicans.
Romney pollster Neil Newhouse calls the findings unsurprising. "It is expected to find that more voters say their views have changed about Mitt Romney; they simply don't know him all that well," he says. "On the other hand, there are few voters who are going to say their views have changed about President Obama. They know him pretty damned well."
Obama and his allies have outspent Romney's side on ads so far by almost a third. Although the TV spots didn't start earlier than in recent elections, there have been more than ever before - including a negative flood from the new breed of super PACs - and they are continuing without the traditional summertime letup.
In the 12 battleground states, the race is all but tied. Obama leads Romney 47%-45% among 1,200 registered voters in the poll June 22-29 - a tick closer than Obama's 48%-44% lead among 2,404 voters in the rest of the USA over the same period.
The swing states survey focuses on a dozen states that aren't firmly aligned with either Democrats or Republicans. That puts them in a position to tip the outcome in the Electoral College. The states: Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin.
The candidates expend enormous time and effort raising money in such cities as New York, Los Angeles and Houston so they can then spend most of that money on ads in such media markets as Colorado Springs, Orlando and Richmond, Va.
Their target: voters like Jessica Bruning, 28, of Holstein, Iowa.
"I don't get a chance to see the news a lot," Bruning, who was called in the USA TODAY Poll, said in a follow-up phone interview. "I have two kids and go to school and work. Seeing the ads every day helps me catch up. I see what they are going to do."
What has she learned? That Obama has been pushing to keep student loan rates low - she's attending community college to be certified as a welder, so that's an important issue for her - and that Romney "wants to cut taxes for the rich people and raise them for the poor."
"I don't think that's cool," she says. She plans to vote for Obama.
Remembering the negative
More than three of four voters in the battlegrounds say they've seen campaign ads on TV over the past month. They're more likely to recall the negative ones, which have included a barrage attacking the president's stewardship of the economy and depicting Romney as a heartless corporate executive. Nearly two-thirds have seen negative ads about Romney and almost seven in 10 negative ones about Obama.
"Oh, man, you can't turn on the local network - it's every other one is a campaign commercial for somebody," says Trish McConnell, 57, of Jacksonville. She plans to vote for Romney. "I just really am disappointed with the way our country is going," she says.
Last week alone, the presidential candidates and outside groups supporting them spent nearly $15 million on advertising in the Sunshine State and other battlegrounds, according to data from the ad-tracking firm SMG Delta as reported by NBC. The Romney campaign bought $4.3 million in ads, and the conservative super PAC Americans for Prosperity another $2.6 million. The Obama campaign bought $6.5 million and the pro-Obama Priorities USA Action $1.4 million.
It's about to get even more intense: The two sides are poised to spend $100 million on ads over the next month, TheWashington Post calculates. Since advertising began for the general election, Romney and his allies have spent $85 million on TV spots, according to NBC/SMG Delta. Obama and his supporters have spent $110 million.
"I've seen quite a few of them, but I try to get my information from a plethora of sources out there," says Bruce Rosemark, 63, of Las Vegas, a retired bank employee who was among those surveyed. "Normally the ads you see on TV are pretty much knocked down to the lowest common denominator and appeal mostly to emotion and half-truths on both sides."
Many voters say they dislike the campaign ads as too negative, distrust them as inaccurate and deny that they affect their opinions. Seven of 10 say the TV ads simply confirm what they already think about the candidates. "I figure it's all a bunch of hooey anyway," says Ken Kelly, 72, a retired steelworker from Alliance, Ohio.
Only 8% acknowledge the ads changed their minds about a candidate, for better or worse, though analysts say the actual number is probably higher because some voters don't want to admit or may not even realize their views were affected. Obama leads among those voters nearly 5-to-1.
Even Rosemark, a conservative, says Democratic ads criticizing Romney's history in Massachusetts got his attention. "It did make me look a little bit about what his record was," he says.
"There's passive learning, passive effects," says Michael Franz of Bowdoin College in Maine, co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project. "Voters may not know per se that an ad has changed their mind. ... It may be moving their perceptions slightly in ways they're not cognizant of."
Ken Goldstein, a political scientist and president of Kantar Media CMAG, which monitors political ads, says even a small effect could have decisive consequences. He cites the razor-thin margins in Florida and elsewhere in the 2000 election. "Listen, I think the political-advertising impact is pretty modest - a small effect that only matters on the margins," he says. "But ask Al Gore if the margin matters."
Swing-state voters are a bit more enthusiastic about voting this year than those living elsewhere, perhaps reflecting the attention they're given in TV ads and candidate visits. Nearly half of those in battleground states are extremely or very enthusiastic about voting for president this year. Just under three in 10 aren't keen about it.
In the battlegrounds, the most enthusiastic voters outnumber the least enthusiastic ones by 17 percentage points. In the non-battlegrounds, the difference is 12 points.
"Voters who are being exposed to the bombardment of ads feel like they're in the game," says Tobe Berkovitz, an advertising professor at Boston University and a former political media buyer. "They have front-row seats for the presidential campaign."
The USA TODAY Poll shows that Republicans, who lagged in enthusiasm in the last swing states survey, have gained an edge now. That may reflect growing comfort with Romney becoming the nominee now that the GOP primaries are over. Among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents, 30% say they are extremely enthusiastic about voting, up 5 points from the spring.
Among Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents, 23% are extremely enthusiastic, a 3-point dip from the last survey.
Even so, battleground voters say, 4-to-1, that they are ready for this election to end already.
They were asked which better describes them: You can't wait for this election to begin? Or you can't wait for this election to be over? Eight in 10 chose the latter.
"They last so long," says Corey Cunningham, 26, a graduate student in music composition at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
That sort of voter fatigue could present challenges for both campaigns over the next four months, when the flood of TV ads is guaranteed to get fiercer. "Ads do have a limited shelf life," Franz says. "Any gains would disappear if you stop." But by the end of the campaign, he cautions, people could "just roll their eyes at the advertising. They'll say, 'I get it; I know it; stop talking to me.' "
Pam Jopson, 51, of Rockingham, N.C., already tries to dodge the ads. "I mostly DVR everything and edit the ads out," the mental-health professional says. "They can ruin your day."