“There’s a reason people run negative ads…it’s because they work.”
Anne Northup, US Representative from Kentucky
In a recent report about this year’s GOP presidential primary contests, the overwhelming finding is that this year’s campaign ads are nastier and more negative than in previous battles.
Much of the assaults have come from the super PACs, with unlimited contributions funding the massive attacks against the candidates. For example, Mitt Romney’s allied (but not coordinated) super PAC, Restore Our Future, spent $15.3 million in ads, with most of that being spent on attack ads against Newt Gingrich.
And the firepower hasn’t stopped, with Restore Our Future running sixteen attack ads nearly 42,000 times in major media markets.
Even before North Carolina gets to see the GOP slugfest up-close, the attacks are coming into the Charlotte media market, with the airing of an ad by Robert Pittenger, who is battling in a 10-way race for the 9th Congressional District’s GOP nomination.
As reported on Friday, Pittenger is going after fellow first-tier candidate and Republican rival Jim Pendergraph. In framing the attack on Pendergraph, Pittenger is using the “wolf in sheep’s clothing” frontal assault against the former Democratic sheriff.
Pittenger seems to be relying on the classic four-phase approach to political advertisements, something that Edwin Diamond and Stephen Bates detailed in their study of political advertising on TV:
- Phase 1: the “ID spots” that provide an introduction or biography of the candidate (Pittinger’s ID spot ad is here).
- Phase 2: the “Argument spot” that provides a candidate’s cause, concerns, and platforms (again, Pittinger’s argument spot is here).
- Phase 3: the “Attack spot” that are direct, personal, and confrontational against an opponent (unfortunately, we don’t have a copy of Pittinger’s ad on-line yet, but it’s airing in Charlotte).
- Phase 4: the “Visionary spot” that wraps up a candidate’s campaign with a vision for the electorate of moving ahead (we’ll probably see this type closer to May 8th)
Pittinger is the first to go up on the air in this heavily contested primary race, and we’ll most likely see more of the first tier candidates, especially Pendergraph, go up soon.
The advantage that Pittinger has, by moving into the third phase of advertisements, is that the other candidates have to consider responding to the attacks made against them—or launch an attack of their own.
Granted, what Pittinger is saying about Pendergraph is true (he was a Democratic candidate for 13 years in Mecklenburg) and would have been a missed opportunity if one of Pendergraph’s opponents hadn’t brought it up.
Early attack ads set the tone for a contest by setting the agenda for how candidates will have to respond. While Pendergraph certainly has name recognition already due to serving as Mecklenburg’s sheriff and now as vice chair of the county Board of Commissioners, Pendergraph may be more on the defensive than offense.
Pendergraph may be forced now to allocate time and money that would have gone to the first two phases to a response ad against Pittinger.
So do attack ads like this work? The American electorate loves to deride the use of negative ads—mud-slinging, character assassination, lies, more lies, and twisted versions of the truth. But surpisingly, political scientists are divided on negativity’s impact.
One study, “Going Negative: How Political Ads Shrink and Polarize the Electorate” by Shanto Iyengar and Stephen Ansolabehere, describes the impact of negative ads as decreasing participation by voters, especially those who are independent, leaving an electorate that is more polarized, leaving our democratic process more subverted.
In contrast, John Geer’s “In Defense of Negativity: Attack Ads in Presidential Campaigns” argues that negative ads focus more on critical political issues, and actually aid the voter with relevant information before casting their ballot. Geer contends that negative ads help enrich our democratic process.
Other research has confirmed Rep. Northup’s observation, simply due to the fact that “negative information is more memorable than positive.”
With early voting starting in three weeks, candidates need to start considering how they will get the all-important name recognition in this crowded field to the small percentage of registered Republicans and unaffiliated voters in the 9th Congressional District.
The question is: do candidates want to be known as the one who launched the first grenade, or the one that got hit by it?