Do negative campaign ads really serve a purpose?
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. “