The issues surrounding political campaign advertisements are numerous and often verge on the complex and convoluted. From Citizens United v. the FEC to the DISCLOSE Act, campaign funding and the ads it produces are the subject of intense scrutiny inside and outside of the Beltway. But within this controversial realm comes the most divisive issue of all: negative and personal attacks – and the question of their effectiveness . Seen in every level of every political race, especially in desperate times as a desperate measure, negative ads and personal attacks possess the very backbone of what defines politics: drama, questionable truth and evasive tactics. But are negative ads and personal attacks necessary in order to win a race? When used, do they guarantee a jump in polls or a win?
To answer this question, the history of political advertising in America and its statistical effectiveness must be analyzed. The United States is well known for its intricate campaign finance laws, and many have been changed or drastically amended throughout the years. In 1971, Congress passed the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA), which limited the impact that wealthy individuals and corporations could have on election outcomes via monetary donations, regulated campaign spending, and made mandatory the disclosure of funding. In 1974, an amendment to FECA created the Federal Election Commission (FEC), a powerful agency that regulates and enforces campaign and election law. Additional amendments to FECA were also made in 1976 and 1979.
It was in this era that the campaign finance laws that we are familiar with were established. However, as political advertising became more popular, so did negative and personal ads. According to Advertising and Societies: Global Issues by Katherine Toland Frith and Barbara Mueller, campaign ads can be classified into one of three categories: attack, advocacy or contrast. Attack ads focus on negative aspects of the opposing candidate’s history or personal flaws. Advocacy ads emphasize the candidate’s positive positions and viewpoints, while contrast ads are essentially a combination of both.
Throughout the mainstream media and the blogosphere, writers and pundits are all too happy to voice their viewpoints on the issue. Peggy Noonan of the Wall Street Journal says, “Negative advertising tears everything down. It contributes to the cynicism of the populace, especially the young." On the other hand, Mark Penn of Politico notes that “clever negative advertising works. That is reality." Regardless of professional opinion, negative ads and personal attacks do happen, and show no signs of stopping soon. According to ThisNation.com, “voters seem to be increasingly turned off by negative campaign ads and mudslinging, but that hasn't deterred political candidates from using these tactics.” Using a bipartisan study conducted in 2000 by the Project on Campaign Conduct, ThisNation attempted to analyze voter sentiment towards negative campaign advertisements. The data points to long-standing voter dissatisfaction with the political establishment and questioning of the techniques that politicians use to draw voters to the ballots.
• 59% believe that all or most candidates deliberately twist the truth.
• 39% believe that all or most candidates deliberately lie to voters.
• 43% believe that most or all candidates deliberately make unfair attacks on their opponents. Another 45% believe that some candidates do.
• 67% say they can trust the government in Washington only some of the time or never.
• 87% are concerned about the level of personal attacks in today's political campaigns.
(from the Project on Campaign Conduct - 2000)
More recently, several studies were done analyzing the psychological and physiological affects that negative advertising has on viewers. In 2007, researchers Bradley, Angelini and Lee determined that viewers watching attack ads experienced eye movements that mimicked fight-or-flight symptoms seen in primal fear reactions. Although the unconscious action associated with this reaction is to move away, the ads were not perceived as life threatening, thus allowing the viewers time to absorb the information and remember them more clearly.
In regard to effectiveness, negative advertisements seem to leave a memorable mark on the viewer. In a study done by Garramone (1984), viewers were able to remember details of a negative advertisement 60 percent of the time. The results of similar research done in 1989 show that most respondents were able to remember and recall at least one negative political ad. Overall, multiple studies point to the fact that attack advertisements are more easily recalled than the more positive advocacy advertisements.
This data seems eerily familiar, especially in the political climate of the 2010 midterm elections. With Democrats distancing themselves from a controversial agenda and facing losses in Congress, negative political advertisements are packing a particularly brutal punch this year. Races are close and last-ditch tactics are being drawn out on both sides in an effort to gain crucial independent votes. In her op-ed, Noonan notes that desperate or downtrodden political parties tend to resort to negative ads in the final stretch before the elections. This strategy is especially timely for 2010. “At this point in history, with America teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, negative advertising is even more destructive, more actually wicked, than it was in the past,” writes Noonan.
Adrienne Washington of the Washington Times in 2008 also presented a unique viewpoint regarding the negative ads in that crucial election year. “Still, the larger question is how this mudslinging with expensive negative campaign advertisements will affect the election outcome and at what cost, not only to the candidates but also to the electorate they aim to sway?” she says. “Replaceable dollars? Irreplaceable values?” The effectiveness of these ads is constantly analyzed by liberal and conservative punditry alike, and each year the parties have something different to show for it. The reliability of negative advertisements and personal attacks in regard to winning an election is clearly not static, as evidenced by constant turnover of parties in the White House and within Congress.
With the advent of the Tea Party and more candidates running in the primaries than ever before, sheer diversity across party lines was grounds for easy attacks in 2010. In the race between Republican Senate candidates in Delaware, incumbent Congressman Mike Castle used negative campaign advertisements against his conservative Tea Party foe Christine O’Donnell. He lost with 47% of the vote compared to O’Donnell’s 53%. Although many do not believe that O’Donnell can beat her Democratic challenger in November 2010, the fact that she won the primary race seemingly contradicts the data regarding the power of negative advertising.
Immediately following O’Donnell’s bid for office, Mike Castle’s campaign released the website RealChristine.com. The site highlighted O’Donnell’s past financial troubles regarding her campaign and evidenced her “reckless and hypocritical behavior”. Castle supporters were even encouraged to tweet about O’Donnell, specifically the sentence that “Christine O’Donnell has been hopelessly irresponsible with her own finances, not to be trusted w/ ours."
Additionally, Castle ran a TV ad depicting O’Donnell as a mixed-up puzzle, claiming that she owed $11,744 in back taxes and penalties, was sued by Fairleigh Dickinson University for unpaid expenses, defaulted on her mortgage, ran up huge campaign staff and left vendors and staff unpaid, and used campaign donations to pay her rent.
These personal attacks are creative marketing techniques used to put doubt in the minds of Republican voters that might have considered O’Donnell. In the end, though, we know that they were not as effective as Castle hoped for them to be. Although these claims are not direct lies and some can even be proven to be true, why did knowing this not prevent the citizens of Delaware from voting for O’Donnell? Was all this information overkill? Some pundits say that hard-pressed citizens voted for O’Donnell for just the opposite reason – they identified with her money struggles and saw themselves in her mistakes.
O’Donnell responded to the criticism by saying “Of course in this economy I've fallen on hard times. But I worked hard. I sacrificed. I made the decision that I needed to make things right".
Regardless of whether or not she wins in the general election, O’Donnell proved a crucial point when she beat out the Republican establishment in the primaries. She simply proved that negative advertising and knowledge of candidate’s flaws does not always work. Although it may be effective and certainly created in-fighting within the establishment GOP (O’Donnell was supported by Sarah Palin but not Karl Rove), its effectiveness may depend on the time and place of the election as well as the candidates involved.
Interestingly, there are studies that support this idea. Out of 143 democracies in the world, the United States ranks 139th in regard to voter turnout . The reason for this feeble turnout has been attributed to negative advertising by some researchers. Although it usually accomplishes its goal of turning people off from a candidate, it also turns citizens off from the entire electoral process as a whole. Thus, a large number of voters decide not to exercise their constitutional right.
A study conducted at the University of California, Los Angeles, found that “negative advertising made voters significantly less likely to feel that their opinions mattered, or that elections made any difference, and most important, made them disinclined to vote (positive ad campaigns had exactly the opposite effect)".
However, Barack Obama used negative campaign advertisements heavily in his 2008 run for president, and not only won but spurred the largest voter turnout since the elections of Kennedy, Eisenhower and Johnson in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Despite this and his ultimate success, though, Obama fought Sen. John McCain’s negative campaign against him by launching a "Fight the Smears" micro-site on his campaign website. Clearly, negative advertisements (whether true or not) pose problems in the eyes of the candidates.
So what exactly is the effect of the negative advertisement and personal attack, and do they really work? All of the studies discussed provide viable feedback, but are contradictory in the claimed effect on the voter. Examples throughout history also provide convincing but oppositional evidence regarding negative advertisements. Because negative advertisements incite anxiety and concern from the viewer, engagement and attention can soon follow, leading the citizen to care more deeply about the issues and vote.
On the other hand, this same anxiety can scare voters away, leading them to believe that their viewpoints do not matter and that regardless of who wins, the negativity and flaws seen in each ad will still exist.
In the end, the question remains answerable but perplexing because data exists to support both sides of the argument. Mike Castle’s negative advertising did him no good, while Barack Obama attack ads won him the presidency. Negative advertising is more easily remembered, but also makes voters feel more helpless. All of this information makes it clear that in order for negative advertising and personal attacks to work, the time, place and candidates must be right. There is no formula, but there are certainly circumstances that can either excite or inhibit potential voters. The biggest hurdle for candidates is simply taking advantage of them.
Monday, October 25, 2010
Is the Negative Campaign Ad Useful or Destructive? [Amalaur]
Guest Post by Correspondent Amalaur: