With midterm elections only 6 months away it appears that many political groups are moving away from negative attack ads. Experts believe this change could be a response to new trends in voter response.
A screenshot from a Priorities USA Action political ad against President Barack Obama’s Republican competitor, Mitt Romney, in 2012.
Arguably, 2012 was the nastiest election season in regards to political attack ads. With super PAC money fueling a seemingly endless cycle of ads, the long line of political kidney blows and sucker punches — including one ad from the pro-Barack Obama super PAC, Priorities USA Action, that tied the death of a steel-worker’s wife to the closing of his plant by Mitt Romney’s Bain Capital — made nearly everybody involved uncomfortable with the state of American politics.
“It’s one thing to be negative,” said conservative strategist Frank Luntz. “It’s another thing to demonize your opponent.”
According to the PBS Newshour, however, there seem to be signs that the appeal of this type of campaigning is waning. Per statistics released by Kantar Media, which tracks trends in television, 29 percent of all political advertising paid for by “outside” organizations — “dark money” groups, such as Internal Revenue Code sections 501(c)3, 501(c)4 and 501(c)6 organizations, which are not required to disclose their donors — have been positive or non-derogatory toward a campaign’s opponent. This represents a 20 percent increase from 2012 numbers.
While the political advertising spectrum is still overwhelmingly negative, this noticeable increase is significant, as — according to the Wesleyan Media Project — 59 percent of all ads that have ran so far in Senate campaigns came from outside groups, a 64 percent increase from 2012. Control of the Senate is considered to be up for grabs in this election cycle.
As of April 29, the Wesleyan Media Project found that 109,701 Senate races ads have been aired, with an estimated $43.1 million having been spent so far — 45 percent more than in 2012. Sixty-seven percent of the outside-funded ads favored Republican candidates.
“The calm before the storm”
While this disparity could be explained as the difference in strategies between presidential and non-presidential election cycles, many believes it may be something else. In a conversation with MintPress News, Stephen Farnsworth, director of the University of Mary Washington’s Center of Leadership and Media Studies, suggests that this may be just the calm before the storm.
“Nasty ads work when the two parties are in competition, and you can expect a very negative year once we get to the general election phase of the campaign. The close competition for control of the Senate assures that,” said Farnsworth. “Already major outside funding has been at work softening up vulnerable Democratic incumbents with attack ads, like Sens. Pryor in Arkansas, Landrieu in Louisiana, and Hagan in North Carolina. So far, though, we have seen only the preliminary skirmishes. Those attack advertising efforts will get far more intense once the primaries are over, and particularly after Labor Day.”
With 13 primaries scheduled for May and with Tea Party and far-right challenges to incumbents or mainstream Republicans being nearly commonplace, it may be that a negative ad — which seeks to corner an opponent on a specific issue — may be inappropriate at this point in the campaign season and may constitute “friendly fire.”
Public exhaustion with political negativity
However, many would argue that a shift in the American people’s tolerance for negativity may be in play.
“I believe that fewer negative ads are being produced,” said Kevin Paul Scott, a leading Republican consultant who worked on Mike Huckabee’s 2008 presidential run, “and there is statistics to back this up. Two of the largest conservative groups running ads — Americans for Prosperity and Crossroads GPS — have both seen an incredible uptick of positive ads this cycle, compared to zero positive ads being ran at this point of the election in 2012.”
Currently, 16 percent of Americans for Prosperity television spots and 29 percent of American Crossroads/Crossroads GPS ads have been positive.
Research has found that the tone or volume of a political ad is not the key consideration in if an ad will resonate with the audience. A 2012 analysis by Travis Ridout of Washington State University and Erika Franklin Fowler of Wesleyan University found that the strategic framing of an ad matters more than its perceived negativity. For example, an ad touting a candidate’s foreign politics expertise during an overseas crisis will resonate more with voters than a candidate criticizing his or her opponent’s lack of foreign expertise at a time of peace.
Many Republican campaign managers have taken the lessons of Mitt Romney’s failed presidential run — in which Romney failed to effectively address the negative ads that ultimately buried him — to heart. It has increasingly become important to get ahead of the storyline and control it, which is easier to do from an offensive — instead of defensive — position.
“Any idiot can do a negative ad badly, and many do, but a good positive ad captures a sense of the candidate and the candidate’s connection to the place where he’s running,” said Rick Wilson, a Republican strategist who made the 2002 ad tying Democratic Sen. Max Cleland (Ga.), who is a Vietnam War multiple amputee, to Osama bin Laden. “I don’t pull a punch when a punch is necessary, but there is a certain craft to introducing yourself to people in this business that can get lost in the shuffle.”
A positive ad could quickly defuse a negative ad, as Sen. Kay Hagan (D – N.C.) proved with a positive ad paid for by Senate Majority PAC, which helped to undermine approximately $10 million in Koch Brothers- backed negative ads that were being aired, prior to Hagan having an official Republican opponent.
“It just makes sense for us to do positive ads where we see our candidates out there far unfairly being beaten up, especially by outside groups, especially the ones funded by the Koch brothers,” said Matt Thornton, House Majority PAC’s communications director.
There is another possible explanation in the positive ads disparity from 2012 and 2014: 2012 was a presidential election year.
“By this point in 2012, the two presidential nominees had been chosen, and they were sufficiently known quantities that the most effective advertising strategy was to attack the candidates on their known weaknesses (e.g. Romney’s wealth, various unpopular things Obama had done in office, etc.),” wrote Robert Boatright, an associate professor of political science at Clark University, in an email to MintPress News.
“In 2014, by contrast, the voters haven’t really tuned in yet, and in many of the races that will eventually absorb the most advertising money (e.g. North Carolina, Georgia, maybe Iowa), it is not clear who the Republican nominees will be. It’s not generally in a candidate’s interest to go negative when it’s not clear who your opponent will be.”
Farnsworth concurred. “When you are not in office, the main thing you need to do is tell people who you are and what good things you could do if you were elected. Ads are a great way to telegraph a biography and a vision for a relative unknown figure,” said Farnsworth. “Once you are the nominee, then you can focus on demonizing your opponent.”
Money and buying influence
There is also one final consideration: campaign season is a major boon to local television revenues. Negative television political ads tend to draw more viewer attention than positive ads, which convinces local television stations to dedicate more press time to these negative candidates and their news items, which causes the campaigns to invest more in negative ads in that market.
As there are few official candidates at this point, there is little to feed local ad proliferation.
The Sunlight Foundation and the Campaign Legal Center have filed complaints on Thursday with the Federal Communications Commission against 11 stations in Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire and North Carolina for failure to disclose the specific issue or candidate being presented in certain political ads. Television stations are required to prepare and file documentation of payment for advertisements involving a political candidate or an issue of national importance.
“These files are often the only way we can track political activities and spending by dark money groups that aren’t required to disclose those activities with the Federal Election Commission,” said Kathy Kiely, managing editor of the Sunlight Foundation.
While all of these considerations may, in fact, contribute to the spike in positive political ads, the reprieve from the negativity may be — after the extreme harshness of the mudslinging in 2012 — welcomed and appreciated by the American people.
“Here’s what I think is important,” added Scott, “the American people are getting tired of trash-talking. When it happens at such a high-level, they begin to tune it out.”