Thursday, June 20, 2013
Attack ads work.
It's been said before. Last week, when a pair of polls showed a tightening race for a U.S. Senate seat from Maine, political pundits were saying it again.
They referred to more than $1.7 million in advertising from outside groups presumably responsible for chopping a 20-point lead by independent front-runner Angus King to a single-digit advantage, at least according to one poll. Suddenly, King's chief rival, Republican Charlie Summers, appeared within striking distance -- even though none of the ads mentioned Summers by name.
Not everyone agreed that the ads were responsible for King's diminished lead. But nearly everyone expects the polls will inspire more ads cooked up by Beltway strategists.
Political consultants are convinced of the efficacy of negative advertising, even though the public's general disgust for such messaging has prompted many to come up with new ways to describe it. Strategists now say "issue ads" or "voter education," descriptions that serve the dual purpose of disassociating campaigns from "going negative" and, for some politically active nonprofit groups, maintaining a tax-exempt status.
"Alex Castellanos, a very famous strategist for the Republican Party, once told me he doesn't like the term 'negative,'" said John Geer, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University and author of "In Defense of Negativity." "He likes the term 'hard-hitting issue ads about my opponents' record of shame.'"
Consultants' affinity for negative messaging appears to defy data that suggests Americans don't like it. Geer has noted that up to 80 percent of the public dislikes such negative ads. However, as Geer also notes, deeper analyses have revealed caveats in that statistic.
How negative ads work
A 2011 study in the American Journal of Politics showed that while a majority of women and older voters are less tolerant of negative ads, politically engaged voters and men are less offended by them.
Geer and others have also attempted to dispel the once widely held belief that negative ads can lower voter turnout.
"There's a long-standing piece of conventional wisdom that negative ads decrease turnout," he said. "That's just not true. I don't know how to say it more clearly."
Geer said that negativity has been on the rise for the last 20 years at the presidential level, and so has turnout. He said that attacking something that voters care about can prompt some voters to get involved rather than withdraw.
But can negative messaging change voters' minds?
Ruthann Lariscy, a public relations professor for Grady College at the University of Georgia, says "yes."
In a CNN piece written earlier this year, Lariscy noted that negative messages can "stick" better than positive ones. The reason is something that psychologists call "negativity bias."
"Negative information is more memorable than positive -- just think how clearly you remember an insult," Lariscy wrote.
Negativity bias also tends to affect less-engaged voters.
"Immediately upon hearing and seeing an attack, you might dismiss it as being 'just politics,' " Lariscy wrote. "Then, typically several weeks later when you are making your voting decision, something in your mind recollects the negative information. You have likely forgotten when or where or from whom you heard it -- but the negative content 'stuck.'"
Negativity bias has its limits.
The public is more tolerant of ads that criticize a candidate's voting record or policy positions, Geer said.
Personal attacks, however, can boomerang.
Drawing a distinction between a personal attack and an issue attack is tricky, Geer said, because people can't even agree on what's negative.
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