You’ve all seen the commercials: Dan Maffei’s campaign accusing Ann Marie Buerkle of colluding with Todd Akin to redefine rape. Buerkle’s ad lambasting Maffei for giving bonuses to his staff with taxpayer money. The commercial referring to Maffei as “D.C. Dan.” The one that makes Buerkle look like a hag.
Negative campaign ads have come to dominate the election cycle, to the point where many dread turning on the television. Why do so many politicians undertake this campaign strategy? And more importantly, is it effective?
“When it is based on true actions, it is fine and even necessary,” said Donna Marsh O’Connor of Liverpool. “When it is based on lies and involves name-calling, it degrades our civil society. We cannot always simply promote the positive qualities of a candidate. Sometimes it really is about the problems with a candidate. It is essential to represent those problems without creating larger ones in the process.”
But Stephanie Piston of North Syracuse said they left her annoyed.
“How do we teach respect to our children when the politicians don’t treat each other with respect?” Piston said. “And it is plastered all over on the television and radio? My kids are asking questions and sometimes I am at a loss to answer them when it comes to these ads.”
Her comments were echoed by Joelle Litz of Liverpool.
“I feel like the negative ads turn people off from voting,” Litz said. “Who wants to vote for a person that tries to make himself look better by trash talking his opponent?”
Effective in moderation
A new study by Juliana Fernandes, assistant professor of strategic communication at the University of Miami School of Communication, shows that these kinds of ads can be effective if they’re shown in moderation; massive exposure to a negative ad has a backlash effect on the people’s perceptions of the sponsoring candidate.
“People will be more likely to appreciate and vote for the candidate who is sponsoring the negative advertisement if the ad is presented in a spaced-out manner, over time,” Fernandes said. “A candidate who doesn’t have a large budget for political advertising can use the same advertising over and over again, but in a way that is more strategic.”
In the study, university students participated in two separate tests. First, 150 participants watched the repetition of a 30-second negative political ad of candidates the participants didn’t know (one, three, or five exposures). The ads were presented sequentially, characterizing the presentation as “massive.” According to the results, the participants were most likely to vote for the candidate when they saw the ad three times, and least likely to vote for them when they saw it five times.
In the second test, 306 university students watched advertisements for unknown candidates within a 30-minute television program, with varying time intervals between ad repetitions. Afterwards, participants filled out questionnaires to evaluate the sponsor and the attacked candidates as well as the likelihood of voting for them.
According to the results, when there is a larger time intervals between ad repetitions, viewers were more likely to favor the candidate sponsoring the ad and more likely to dislike the candidate the ad chastised. This was true even with increased repetition, suggesting that the sponsor candidate can avoid the backlash effect by allowing larger time intervals between ad exposures.
“In my study, I show that negative political ads do work under certain conditions,” Fernandes said. “I think they can help the political process because people can look at some facts, process the information more carefully, and later on — when people cast their votes — they can make an informed decision.”
Fernandes said she plans further investigations in the future, including what happens when there are repeated negative and positive political ads and when there are negative ads sponsored by opposing candidates. She would also like to analyze the possible effects of individual variables, such as gender and party affiliation.
Voter suppression by character assassination
Even when ads are not shown in moderation — and it certainly seems they aren’t here — political experts say they can have an impact on a campaign.
Dr. Grant Reeher, professor of political science at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, said negative campaign ads follow two paths.
“There are contrast ads, where you talk about a position that you have taken, or part of, if you’re the incumbent, your record, and you contrast that with the position that the other person has taken, or you contrast your position with the other person’s voting record, depending on who’s the challenger and who’s the incumbent,” Reeher said. “And the idea there is that you’re hoping and you’re assuming that more people are going to agree with your position than theirs, and you’re pointing that out.”
The more controversial ads can be characterized as attack ads, Reeher said.
“Sometimes those can be framed in terms of a vote that someone took or a position that they took, but you have to sort of say, ‘What is the message of this ad? What is the ad trying to tell me? What are the visuals, the tone of the music, and also the tone of the information that’s provided?’” he said. “Basically, what the ad is trying to say is, ‘This person is not a good person in some way,’ on the grounds of some kind of value that is either stated or implied. There’s a certain type of negative ad where one person is saying about the other, ‘This person’s got some kind of character problem.’”
Reeher compared it to a game of chicken.
“No one has a real incentive to grab the steering wheel and pull the car away from the collision,” he said. “Once you get into one of these things, you’re betting that you’re going to come out less damaged, so you keep damaging. They tend to escalate. “
So why would candidates undertake such a risk?
“These ads are not about changing people’s opinions,” Reeher said. “What they’re trying to do is make people who are considering voting for that candidate or are perhaps undecided or maybe in favor of the candidate, but no strongly in favor of the candidate lower their enthusiasm for that person and make them more turned off. The idea is not that you’re bringing somebody new into the polling booth to vote for you, or changing somebody’s mind from voting for your opponent to voting for you. You’re just trying to get people not to vote for the opponent… The more extreme way to make that point would be to say you’re kind of tearing something down, and you recognize that your opponent is going to do the same thing to you. You’re both tearing things down, and at the end of the day, you’re going to walk out of that fire being less burnt.”
Many candidates, however, feel that it’s worth the risk.
“Obviously, the campaign and the candidate think that it can help them,” he said. “Otherwise, they wouldn’t do it.”
Even candidates who set out to run a clean campaign can’t always do so. If they’re the subject of an attack ad, their poll numbers may suffer if they fail to respond.
“There’s not a clear path out of this once you get on the path,” Reeher said. “It doesn’t mean that you need to respond with equally negative things. But you need to respond. You need to address what’s been said about you. That doesn’t mean that you have to come back with your own character assassination ads, but you can’t just let it go.”
As for the contention that negative campaigning turns away voters, Reeher said that’s the point.
“It is a voter suppression strategy,” he said. “When you run one of these, you’re not thinking, ‘I’m going to convince that person to vote for me now. They were thinking they were going to vote for them, but now they’re going to vote for me.’ You’re not thinking, ‘I’m going to get people so much more enthusiastic for me that I’m going to bring more people out to vote for me than would have voted for me before.’ That’s not what you’re doing. You’re trying to suppress the enthusiasm and depress the level of enthusiasm for your opponent.”
The dollar amount
In addition to the risk to the campaign, advertising, negative or otherwise, comes at a great financial cost. Advertising dollars make up the bulk of most campaign expenses. Promoting a candidate’s campaign includes not only television and print advertising, but also mailings, lawn signs, campaign events, sponsorships of community events, palm cards, parade and community appearances and more. Those expenses add up.
According to the most recent Federal Election Commission (FEC) filings, Buerkle’s campaign spent $475,633.58 in the third quarter, $298,920.10 of it on advertising, signs, mailings and palm cards. Maffei, meanwhile, spent $616,663.03 in the same period; of that, he spent $447,827.24 promoting his candidacy.
And it’s not just the candidates’ money being spent. Outside groups have a vested interest in the 24th District race; Buerkle has been called one of the most vulnerable Republicans, so the National Republican Congressional Committee has poured money into advertising on her behest to boost her position, as have conservative groups like the anti-Obamacare American Action Network, the Center for Individual Freedom, Freedomworks for America, Heritage Action for America, the National Rifle Association Institute for Legislative Action, the National Right to Life Political Action Committee, the Susan B. Anthony List Inc. and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Together, those groups spent more than $1.7 million on advertising that either promoted Buerkle or criticized Maffei. On the other side, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has come out attacking Buerkle, spending more than $916,000 to that end.
What makes an ugly campaign?
One of the reasons national political organizations are pouring so much money into this race is because it’s such a close one. In face, Buerkle has been identified by Roll Call, a national publication, as one of the 10 most vulnerable members of Congress; in 2010, she beat Maffei by just 648 votes.
“You don’t tend to see a lot of this stuff in elections that aren’t expected to be that close,” Reeher said. “There’s always a risk involved in this, and so if I’m 20 points ahead, why would I want to do something like that? Why would I want to invite the counterattack?”
The fact that the candidates have sparred before also contributes to the ugliness of the ads. That contributes many times to a negative campaign, Reeher said.
“Last time it was a pretty tough race, and it was extremely close,” Reeher said. “So the conclusion that a candidate might draw the next time in a race like that is, ‘Well, I’ve got to ratchet the volume level of this up one notch.’ And then, also, of course, the experience that each candidate has of each other from the two years’ prior. I don’t think it’s a great stretch to say these two candidates do not seem to be particularly fond of each other.”
So what’s a voter to do in the face of all of this vitriol? The simplest solution is to just turn off the TV.
“I look at who represents each party, then I go to their web site to look for specifics on how they are going to affect the issues I care about,” said Laura Johnson, a former Liverpool resident who now lives in Rochester. “If I can’t get the informational specifics beyond ‘I will cut taxes/increase jobs’ then I move on to the next candidate. Sometimes you have to call to get the information, but for the most part, you can get it if you look.”
You can also go to a trusted source like the League of Women Voters, a nonpartisan group that provides information like voting records, biographies and position statements on each of the candidates.
The bottom line? Negative campaign ads do serve a purpose, but they shouldn’t be the deciding factor in terms of who gets your vote.
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club's Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.