HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. - A few moments on TV more than likely will determine the next president.
The question is which moments: The most memorable exchanges in three 90-minute debates between President Obama and Mitt Romney? Or the impact from a flood of 30-second ads?
Both campaigns viewed the second debate Tuesday night as a pivotal event in a contest that is once again strikingly close. After a year-long campaign, the town-hall-style debate at Hofstra University was the biggest remaining opportunity for Romney to build on the positive impression he made in the first debate and for Obama to regain the momentum he lost there.
Still, in the battleground states, the televised debates are framed by an unprecedented onslaught of political advertising, almost all of it negative. On local stations from Orlando to Columbus, Richmond to Las Vegas, airtime from now until election eve is sold out and campaign ads are running back-to-back.
It is easier to skip the debates than avoid the ads.
The first debate drew a huge audience of 67 million, Nielsen says, the most for any presidential debate since 1992. But the paid ads have reached more. In a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll of Swing States, nearly eight of 10 residents of a dozen top battlegrounds say they have seen an ad for Obama or Romney in the past three days. (So did 63% of those in non-swing states.)
For most, it wasn't a positive experience. A 55% majority in the swing states say this year's presidential ads have "turned them off to the campaign." Just a third say they have made them "feel more excited" about it.
The poll of 1,023 registered voters was taken Oct. 5-11 in Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin. The margin of error is +/-4 percentage points.
"It's just mud-slinging," Mary Edwards, 46, of Wilson, N.C., who was called in the poll, said in a follow-up phone interview. "They're just talking trash about each other. They're not putting out what they're going to do, what they can do."
"My 5-year-old is frightened by them, by those on both sides," says Karen Farrell, 42, who lives in the Northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C. The future they paint if the opposition wins is dire, Farrell says. "She says, 'Mama, is this really going to happen?'"
Marge Joefreda, 73, of Wainsville, Ohio, has settled on a solution: She now records her favorite TV shows so she can fast-forward through the ads. "I can watch a show in 40 minutes now," she says.
That said, voters in the battlegrounds acknowledge that the ads are influential. Six in 10 say the campaign ads they've seen have made them more certain about whom they'll support. Fewer than one in five said the ads made them less certain.
Obama ads in particular seem to have made an impression: 67% of Democrats said the ads solidified their vote, a bit more than the 60% of Republicans who said so.
In this campaign more than previous ones, the ads and the debates have fulfilled different roles. Almost all of the TV ads have been negative, focused on raising questions about the other candidate, not boosting your own. Ads by Romney and his allies have tried to tie Obama's policies to the nation's problems with unemployment and foreclosures. Obama's team has attacked Romney as a plutocrat with extreme conservative policies and little empathy for regular folks.
A study by the Wesleyan Media Project released earlier this month reported that fewer than 8% of the presidential ads in the previous three weeks had been positive, mentioning only the candidate it backed. That's much lower than in 2000, when 30% of the ads were positive, or in 2008, when 19% were.
"While candidates will try to stay at least somewhat positive on the stump, they'll leave their harshest attacks for their ads," says Mitchell McKinney of the University of Missouri, who has studied presidential debates. "And we've also found that independent expenditure ads are the dirtiest."
In a way, the debates are the antidote to all those ads. On a small stage Tuesday night, before an audience of about 80 undecided or "persuadable" voters, the candidates were not only attacking their opponent but also trying to make the case for themselves.
Obama's task was to demonstrate energy for the campaign and to argue the case that his leadership has made things better for Americans, despite continuing economic woes. The task for Romney was to convey that he understands the problems of most Americans and would do something about them.
"The great thing about the debates are that the candidates can step out from behind the 30-second ads and the sound bites to talk about what their ideas are for the direction of the country," Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom said before the debate began. But both ads and debates are powerful, he adds. "Debates are important, but by themselves they won't decide the election." Ditto, he says, for ads.
In the end, says Mitchell McKinney of the University of Missouri, "the power of the 30-second spot may well trump the effect of debates."
For one thing, voters are much more likely to recall ads, especially negative ones, than they are moments from a debate beyond some gaffe or sharp exchange that becomes the subject of constant replay. For another, ads reach the "marginally attentive voter" while debates tend to attract voters who have made up their minds and are rooting for a candidate. Ads can be targeted to specific voters in particular states, unlike the more general debate message that sticks to broader themes.
Debates can help maintain or change momentum, he says - just as the first debate boosted Romney at Obama's expense. But after next week's final debate in Florida, on foreign policy, the candidates and their allies will continue and even intensify their ad campaigns. Romney raised $170 million last month and Obama $181 million with appeals to supporters to help pay for more ads.
When the debates are over, the ads will still be on the air.
Susan Page, USA TODAY