Mitt Romney announced his VP pick via app (that was the plan, anyway). President Obama responded with a Tumblr post. Throw in Pinterest, smartphones and endless coverage of social media and it’s easy to see why some people might see this election cycle as one existing solely in cyberspace.
But don’t be fooled: There’s still an old-school fossil fuel war afoot.
Third-party groups have overtaken the airwaves, and political web ads abound, so campaigns and activist groups are turning to the internal combustion engine to get the word out. They say that some of the most rudimentary campaign tools — quite literally, buses and airplanes displaying giant signs — are proving the most effective.
This week, Romney’s campaign set off on its latest bus tour, taking the candidate across four swing states. On Friday evening, before the tour kicked off, reporters noted that the Romney bus looked different than the last time it hit the road. This time, the bus read “The Romney Plan for the Middle Class,” in keeping with Romney’s most recent messaging.
On Friday morning, the DNC launched its own bus tour, tracing Romney’s route and stopping where his bus does, a day ahead of the Republican. The Democratic bus is emblazoned with the phrase “Romney Economics: Outsourcing, Offshoring, Out of Touch.” At the launch of their bus tour in Alexandria, Va., Democrats played up their not-so-subtle message that Romney’s economic plan would “literally throw the middle class under the bus.”
It’s one thing to send a snarky tweet you opponent’s way. It’s another to physically stalk him in a hulking campaign office on wheels.
The reasoning behind bracketing Romney’s tour is obvious — but why use a bus when ads and tweets could do the job?
“Here in Virginia, we are getting deluged with Romney’s negative ads and people are starting to tune out, ” former Rep. Tom Perriello (D-VA), told TPM at the Virginia bus stop. “So the extent we can break through all that noise being created on the other side and bring a message directly to the people … the worse that is for Mitt Romney.”
The DNC bus is running a day ahead of Romney’s original bus route (which changed a bit following the selection of Paul Ryan as VP), earning free media along the way. There were several local reporters at the Alexandria bus stop snapping photos and capturing video of the bus and the message.
Bus tours have been a staple of the political scene for years, with tea party-sponsored buses being the dominant form of that movement’s grassroots expression. Both sides are doing it: A group of Catholic nuns recently spent two weeks on a bus tour attacking the Ryan budget. A Romney bus has been known to circle Obama events and honk its horn, drawing attention from both the annoyed Obama supporters and the bemused press.
The takeaway? New tools (as well as old standbys like TV ads) are effective, but sometimes the tried-and-true campaign tools win out.
That also includes planes.
“One of the judgements we made at the outset of the campaign was that there was going to be so much money flying around on television with the super PACs and all of the campaigns that TV ads alone we’re not going to cut it,” said Nick Berning, who’s been helping the progressive group MoveOn launch planes towing banners in the air over Romney events. “That’s how we came up with ‘99 Airlines’: it’s a tactic that not a lot of others are using, and it’s also a tactic that allowed us to engage our members.”
MoveOn has used a flying banner to heckle Romney events 13 times this year, including during Ryan’s big coming-out party. The flights cost between $1,500 and $3,000 — making them vastly cheaper than a TV ad — and the earned media has been tremendous. The Los Angeles Times in June documented how the MoveOn plane, at that time towing a banner reading “Romney’s Every Millionaire Counts Tour,” engaged in a low-speed circular chase with a pro-Romney plane towing a banner that said “Romney for President 2012” over a Romney event in New Hampshire.
Back in May, a low-flying MoveOn-sponsored plane towing a banner reading “GOP = HIGHER SCHOOL DEBT” ensured that an annoying buzzing sound muffled Romney’s Liberty University commencement address.
Berning said the Romney campaign all but disappeared after drawing attention to the MoveOn plane and its message in New Hampshire. The right may be winning the so-called “air war” — the battle on TV airwaves — but progressives, it seems, have superiority in the actual air.
Like buses, aerial political advertising has been around for a long time. Banner companies even fight for the business on their websites. But it’s not something you often see at the highest levels, and Berning said this cycle is the first time MoveOn’s used planes so heavily. They intend to keep it up.
“So far, they really seem to get a lot of attention,” he said, “and really carry our message that Romney’s the president of the 1 percent.”