Two years ago, Barack Obama fever was so hot that even some Republicans caught it, like Oregon Sen. Gordon Smith.
Tea Party-endorsed Christine O'Donnell used President Obama in an ad attacking her more moderate Republican opponent.
One of his ads trumpeted: "Who says Gordon Smith helped lead the fight for better gas mileage and a cleaner environment? Barack Obama!"
And Smith wasn't the only one.
Republican Chris Shays ran for re-election to the House that same year. His campaign ran an ad saying Shays stood for "the hopefulness of Obama" and the "straight talk of [John] McCain."
Both those attempts to ride the Obama coattails failed. And today, Republicans are using President Obama's image in a very different way.
Ken Goldstein of the University of Wisconsin, Madison says you can learn a lot by watching political ads — they're what poker players call a "tell."
"Imagine that you'd been away for the last year. You hadn't been following this campaign at all; you didn't know what Barack Obama's approval rating was," he says. "If we just sat down and showed you 10 ads of Democrats in competitive races and 10 ads of Republicans in competitive races, you would know that things were going to be pretty tough for President Obama and the Democrats this fall."
Using The President As A Weapon
Two years ago, virtually every Democrat included Obama in campaign materials. Today, if you want to see Obama with his arm around a Democratic candidate, the best place to look is a Republican ad.
Take Republican Roy Blunt's Senate ad against Democrat Robin Carnahan in Missouri.
"Robin Carnahan will say anything to hide her record rubber-stamping the Obama agenda," a female voice intones. Then a clip of President Obama comes onscreen. "It would have already been done if I'd had Robin Carnahan there," he says.
Republicans are using the president as a weapon — and not only against Democrats.
"The Tea Party groups that have run ads are really trying to tie Republicans to Obama," says Evan Tracey, who runs the Campaign Media Analysis Group. "This was the case in Alaska with Lisa Murkowski, where the Tea Party group was basically running ads saying that Lisa Murkowski was just like President Obama."
Murkowski lost that race. Just this week, the same thing happened in Delaware, where Tea Party-endorsed Christine O'Donnell successfully used this line of attack against her more moderate Republican opponent:
"Michael Castle is attacking working-class Christine O'Donnell, supporting the Obama agenda. Billion-dollar bailouts? Michael Castle: Yes. O'Donnell will fight them."
'You're Running Against Me!'
In contrast, Democrats are trying to make these elections about individuals.
In Carnahan's response to Blunt's Senate ad in Missouri, the Democrat says: "He seems to think he's running for the Senate against Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi. Hey, Roy, you're running against me!"
When Democrats mention Obama, it's often to emphasize their distance from him. In Democrat Earl Pomeroy's ad for a North Dakota House race, he says he "told the president and congressional leaders 'no' on cap-and-trade legislation."
While the Republicans run against the Democratic troika of Obama, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Democrats have no high-profile villain.
Obama has been trying to put House Minority Leader John Boehner in that role, but it's a hard sell when many Americans have never heard of Boehner.
"In a funny way, if the Republicans are able to take control of the Senate or the House, then for the Democrats, they can at least start attacking Republicans that way," says David Schwartz, chief curator at the Museum of the Moving Image.
That's exactly what President Clinton did after Republicans took control of Congress in 1994. When Clinton ran for re-election against Bob Dole in '96, the president had a perfect foil in House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
"All the Clinton ads showed Newt Gingrich with Bob Dole, and Gingrich was not running for president, but Gingrich was seen as a bad guy," Schwartz says. "And it's like Bob Dole's name became Dole Gingrich. All the ads talked about Dole-Gingrich."
Clinton won that race. But it was arguably only because his party lost big two years earlier.