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The dirty secret behind attack ads

This the eighth story in a series comparing the U.S. system of politics and elections with other democracies around the world.

Jim Meffert
Jim Meffert

I mentioned a couple of installments back that Curtis Gans of the Center for the Study of American Electorate is convinced that negative campaign ads contribute to lower voter participation by causing many Americans to believe that their only choice is between bad and worse.

One former Minnesota congressional candidate says that is exactly the purpose.

Jim Meffert of Edina was the Democratic nominee for the U.S. House in Minnesota’s Third District in 2010. Before that he was involved in lobbying, grassroots politics and in charge of some state and federal PACs. So he has looked at the strategies behind campaign advertising from several insider perspectives. He told me that the primary purpose of late negative advertising is not to win votes for yourself but to reach weak supporters of your opponent in hopes of persuading them that it’s not worth voting at all.

Early in the campaign, the main message is positive, Meffert said. You are introducing yourself, trying to get every possible pocket of support motivated to vote for you. Mid-campaign, he said, many ads are aimed at impressing potential donors that you at least have enough money to be on the air, and are trying convince them that if they will write some checks so you can air even more ads, you might have a chance to win. The funders are extremely pragmatic about not wasting resources on anyone who has no chance.

By the last stretch, when the most intense advertising occurs, you and your allies will go negative against your opponent. By that time, you have done polling to find your opponent’s weak spots and perhaps focus groups to test potential advertising messages that will have the greatest likelihood of undermining your opponent’s supporters’ interest in voting, Meffert said.

In a tight race, after you have done everything you can to get your supporters motivated to show up and vote for you, the purpose switches to something that should really have no place in a democracy.

At the end, Meffert said, “that’s when the negative ads outnumber the positive ads about five to one. That’s when they ask: ‘Did you know that Candidate X wears horns and is a predatory offender and is in the back pocket of evil corporations or the evil teachers unions?’ — or whatever trigger points the research has suggested might work, because the goal is to get 2 or 3 percent of the other guy’s weakest supporters to get turned off and just stay home.

“It’s the worst, most cynical part of the process,” Meffert said. “Trying to get people not to vote goes so against everything we’re supposed to be about in a democracy. But there’s a whole industry and people who spend their lives developing the best technique for accomplishing this. It’s an absolute abomination. And it’s happening all the time, much more often than people realize.”

Watching the late advertising during the current cycle, Meffert said,  “confirms to an ever greater degree that anyone who believes anything a candidate, or campaign says about their opponent or themselves in a purchased ad is an idiot.” 

Gans told me that the famous Democratic political consultant Bob Shrum had confirmed that this is the purpose of negative advertising. University of Minnesota political scientist David Samuels also believes that this is the main motivation for attack ads. On the other hand, longtime DFL political operative Jeff Blodgett, best-known for his association with Sen. Paul Wellstone, said he had never been involved in a strategy designed to discourage turnout.

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Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 10/22/2014 - 09:07 am.

    But do they really work?

    I’ve heard from many people over the years that politicians use negative campaign advertising because “it works”, don’t ya know. As if it were a something everybody knows. Now we know from this article that this slimy campaign strategy is purposeful and actually has a slimy purpose. My only question is: has there been any independent survey that it actually does work as intended? Because negative campaign ads might be seen also as a way of morale building for a candidate’s supporters.

  2. Submitted by E Gamauf on 10/22/2014 - 11:47 am.

    Anxious & Despondent Is the Way to Be

    I don’t think that’s written at the Lincoln Memorial,
    or any of our other monuments anywhere!

    Cynicism is Easy.
    Whether it works, depends upon how much has been heaped on the public. Eventually, even cynicism gets old.

    Does anybody really hear or believe the full drone of PAC attack ads now being foisted upon us a dozen times every evening?

    Surely if there ARE any people that panicked they are hiding in a bunker somewhere.

  3. Submitted by bea sinna on 10/22/2014 - 01:35 pm.

    negative campaign ads

    I see them and I hear them and then I turn the TV off for a few days, leave my mail un-read, because they make me sick and angry and appalled at our democratic election process. Like much of general advertising/propaganda, negative campaign ads are directed towards the less sophisticated, less educated, less politically-experienced, more vulnerable people amongst us.I have sent e-mail messages to both the Democratic and Republican campaign committees to tell them so; neither has answered, probably too busy thinking up more crap.

  4. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 10/22/2014 - 05:08 pm.

    Small effects

    Most of our major elections are close; 52% is a runaway in a Presidential election.
    So political advertising doesn’t have to affect -most- people to be effective; just a few who are undecided (and research has shown that those are mostly people who haven’t given the election much thought).

  5. Submitted by Tom Christensen on 10/22/2014 - 07:01 pm.

    Many voters don’t get informed

    Politician count on the fact most voters don’t get informed. All they want you to remember is just one negative comment about their opponent. Just enough info to take into the voting booth and vote for the one they dislike the least. By election day voters have OD on politics. As soon as one election is completed the next election starts. There isn’t anytime to get work done, i.e. the US congress.

    • Submitted by E Gamauf on 10/25/2014 - 07:32 am.

      Whether negativity & innuendo does or does not work

      The ad agencies and political consultants surely won’t tell anybody otherwise!
      The newspapers of course, want a horse race to boost readership right up to the wire.

      You don’t see the TV stations turning away political ad revenue!

      We need to remember the US congress is on a 2nd hiatus right now.
      Just as Hobbits have Second Breakfast, so does the congress.

      For politicians at large: If its nefarious intent, or simple expediency is harder to figure out.
      Maybe they reflect society, instead of drive it.

      Well, that’s been true until these past 6 years, when you hear cranky politicians declaring they will dedicate their entire terms solely to undermining a sitting US president who dug us out of recession.

      Could be that’s the height of cynicism.

  6. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 10/23/2014 - 06:06 pm.


    So the main question again is: Do we want people who vote (or not vote) based on those ads to actually vote? Do their votes add to democracy or just the opposite?

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 10/23/2014 - 06:46 pm.

      How would you -prove-

      that your vote was not influenced by political advertising?
      If you can’t prove this, do you, by your stated criteria, have the right to vote?

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