Stop calling this number! Why the US is sick of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney

As the campaign for the presidency enters its final furlong, the voters are becoming inured to the constant appeals for votes – but with so much at stake, they show no sign of drying up
  • @guyadams

At breakfast-time Katie McKernan attempted to watch Good Morning America, ABC television's popular news and light entertainment show, which is watched by a nationwide audience of roughly five million.

It was not a happy experience. At 8.40am, during a commercial break, a threatening voice asked: "What will Barack Obama's second term look like?" The answer? Spiralling national debt, huge cuts to Medicare, the government health programme for retired people, and ever-rising energy and petrol prices for "working Americans."

At 8.42am, a different, but equally sinister voiceover told her about Tim Kaine, the Democratic Party's local candidate for the US Senate. This man, it warned, is in "lockstep" with President Obama and the "failed policies" which are allegedly bankrupting families.

At 8.48am, Ms McKernan faced a third attack-advert whacking the "socialist agenda" of Mr Obama and his "failed" economic stimulus. And at 8.55am came a Democratic Party hit suggesting that Mitt Romney would outlaw abortion and take away a woman's rights to equal pay.

Welcome to American television in the final days of the costliest and most divisive elections in world history. A record $2.5bn has been raised by candidates and their surrogates in recent months. And most of it is being used to fill the nation's airwaves with a torrent of negativity.

Ms McKernan, a 40-year-old housewife, lives in the eye of this storm. Her home is in Roanoke, a city in Virginia, one of the roughly half-dozen swing States that hold the key to the White House. She and her neighbours are duly being carpet-bombed.

Away from the TV, each day brings a stream of dubious leaflets and earnest telephone calls. Ms McKernan says the calls mostly begin with a question: Republicans might ask: "Are you interested in preserving Virginia's coal heritage?" Democrats might wonder if you're "concerned about women's reproductive freedom". After that, they move on to the hard sell.

"We were at a friend's house for dinner the other night, and [were] rung over and over. It was something like eleven times in a row," says Ms McKernan, a registered Republican. "It's ridiculous. I no longer have a landline, and I've stopped answering my cell-phone unless the call's from a number I recognise."

In Ohio, which most pollsters believe will carry the margin of victory, and where President Obama has a narrow poll lead, no less than 58,235 political TV adverts aired in the past month. According to Bloomberg, it would take 80 days of non-stop viewing to watch them all.

"Every single TV break, you'll get three or four, straight after each other," says Brian Clutter, an IT support worker who lives in the city of Lima, Ohio. "One will say 'don't elect this guy'; the next will say 'don't elect the other guy'. After a while they just merge into one." The blitz reflects two factors that may decide this election. The first was "Citizens United", a recent Supreme Court decision that allowed wealthy individuals and large corporations to anonymously donate unlimited funds to "Super PACs," lobbying organisations that support one or other candidate.

That has dramatically raised the cash being spent. Figures this week showed that both campaigns are on track to raise $1bn this election, with Romney out-raising Obama by $111m to $90m in the first half of October. That's only slightly ahead of the 2008 figure. But factor in the additional $551m sitting in the coffers of 955 registered "Super PACs," and overall spending in 2012 will top previous election records.

The second factor is a cynicism among the US electorate. Polls show Romney has a narrow lead on the national level, while Obama holds a small advantage in States crucial to winning the electoral college (and with it the Presidency). But neither candidate is breaking through the 50 per cent barrier, and a many voters seem unimpressed by both of them. In that context, negative advertising works: it helps campaigns scare cynical voters to the polls by persuading them to vote against the other guy. The Democrats are therefore telling women that Romney will take away reproductive rights, for example. The Republicans are meanwhile telling their base that Obama will take away their guns and religious freedom.

Both pitches are divisive, over-simplified, and contribute to a poisonous climate. But that doesn't make them less effective. Voters may proclaim to hate negative advertising, but when pollsters ask who they are voting for and why, a good portion of those same voters will reel off the taglines of attack ads.

Romney and Obama and their running mates will spend the next 10 days aboard private jets, zipping from swing state rally to swing state rally. States still in play, in rough order of importance, are Ohio, Florida, Colorado, Virginia, Nevada and Wisconsin, though Iowa and New Hampshire could also factor into plans.

Mr Obama will talk up yesterday's better-than-expected GDP figures (growth rose from 1.3 to 2 per cent last quarter, helped by rising consumer spending and renewed activity in the housing market). Mr Romney will say growth remains anaemic and continue to argue that his rival has no agenda for the coming four years.

But after three debates, and months of stump speeches, the closing pitches of each candidate are likely to cancel each other out. At this stage, focus will therefore shift to their respective "ground games" – the vast voter turnout operations in which campaign volunteers attempt to get their core supporters to the polls.

That is an area in which an incumbent usually has the upper hand, thanks to his existing network of supporters. In 2008, Obama registered 1.5 million volunteers, far more than the 119,000 that Romney and the RNC say have been active since this spring. The Obama campaign also has vastly more field offices than their rivals (62 compared with 14 in Colorado, for example). However the Republicans claim to be using their resources more effectively, saying they had made 45 million "voter contacts" by last Saturday, roughly double the figure for last time.

The meat and potatoes of any "ground game" are "phone banks", where volunteers canvass voters in swing states. In Los Angeles, Desarie Green, a 32-year-old attorney, spent most of the week at her laptop, calling voters in Nevada on behalf of the Obama campaign. On one side of her computer screen was a list of phone numbers; on the other, a flow chart of questions designed to persuade floating voters to the polls.

"There's a lot of people out there who may not have voted, or who haven't made up their minds yet," she said. "And a surprising number of voters are still receptive to what we have to say."

For hapless residents of swing states that remains a double-edged sword. "I don't remember a more polarising election in my adult life," said Ms McKernan yesterday. "A friend of mine "liked" Mitt Romney on Facebook, and her mother is no longer speaking with her. Whoever wins, I'll just be happy when it's all over."