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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

How Ads Cut Both Ways

I tend to side with the viewpoint that ads don’t matter so much in creating a wave election, or in the overall outcome of congressional elections. Sure, ads can make a big difference in individual races, as many believe LBJ’s “daisy chain” ad did in 1964. But when you are looking at the aggregate result of races for 435 House seats and one-third of Senate seats, larger forces, like economic insecurity, are going to determine which party comes out on top. Ads can stress or understate economic fears, but not too many voters are going to let ads change their perceptions of the economic realities they are experiencing.
Still, it’s instructive to look at effective ads – as well as those that boomeranged, and how they may have helped decide individual elections. One example of the latter was Christine O’Donnell’s widely-ridiculed “I’m not a Witch” ad, although she was probably doomed before it came out. A better example was Democratic senatorial candidate Jack Conway’s “Aqua Buddha” ad in his campaign against Rand Paul. Writing in the Louisville Courier-Journal, Brandeis Professor Russell L. Weaver observed,

…The evidence started coming in as soon as Conway’s more sensational ads began running….According to Real Clear Politics, a nonpartisan group that lists election polls, the electorate started moving decisively away from Conway shortly after he began his most outrageous attack ads. What had been a close race (a 4 percent differential in favor of Paul, but one that was within the margin of error) quickly expanded to eight points, then to twelve points, and then 15 points. Ultimately, Paul won by 12 points.
Interestingly, during this period, overall support for Conway dropped, and the percentage of people who viewed him negatively rose significantly. While it is possible that future candidates will interpret this election as simply a wave election, and conclude that Conway had no chance with or without the attack ads, I’m hoping that they will see the election as illustrating the potential perils of negative advertising. One wonders what would have happened in this race had Conway taken the high road and run positive advertising that emphasized his record.

I had to eat some crow on this one, having written that Conway could have been the Dems’ best shot at a pick-up. Conway may well have lost even without the ad — Dems got trounced across the board in KY, with a couple of exceptions. In stark contrast to his better speeches, Conway’s ad was so ill-conceived and poorly executed that it even elicited expressions of disgust from some liberals and iced the election for Paul.
Conway should have known better. There was the example of Democrat Kay Hagan’s victory in NC’s ’08 senate race, which some observers attributed to incumbent Republican Elizabeth Dole’s “Godless” ad attempting to link Hagan to an atheist group. Hagan, a Sunday school teacher, responded brilliantly.
Conway’s real point was to take Paul to task for mocking Christianity when he was a college student, a dubious idea at best. It was easily spun to sound like Conway was disparaging Paul’s faith, and the tone was nasty enough to backfire on Conway. Plus, the ad was visually ugly and the buzz may have left many swing voters with an unsavory image they associated more with Conway than Paul.
James Vega had a more promising idea — to make Paul explain his ardent reverence for Ayn Rand, a militant atheist philosopher who mocked religion, as a way of demonstrating Paul’s hypocrisy. This would be more effectively revealed by reporters or a non-campaign source. While attacking an opponent’s religion is clearly a loser, exposing hypocrisy as a character flaw is fair enough game, if done carefully.
Ridicule can be an effective campaign tactic, but there are limits. Conway’s experience reaffirms the warning that calling attention to an opponent’s religion is a dicey proposition at best, and blasting a candidate for long-ago college pranks makes the attacker look petty and desperate. Sharp ridicule should come from a source that is not affiliated with a candidate. The Republicans know this, and let the shadowy groups empowered by the Citizens United decision do their dirtier work.
No doubt there were many other ads besides the ‘witch’ and ‘Aqua Buddha’ ads, which backfired, particularly in lower-profile races. Rep. Alan Grayson’s ‘Taliban Dan’ ad, for example, was instrumental in his defeat, according to Charlie Cook.
The 2010 campaigns included attack ads that served their sponsors extremely-well, none with a bigger prize at stake than Jerry Brown’s much-applauded ad revealing eMeg parroting the same failed policy cliches – almost verbatim – as Governor Schwartzenegger. Brown probably would have won without the ad, but it generated great anti-Whitman buzz, and his numbers trended significantly upward after the ad debut. The firm that made it will get plenty of work from Democratic candidates in the next election. Conversely, it appears that Democratic Governor-elect John Hickenlooper’s clever anti-attack ad scored well with pro-civility voters in his close race in CO.
Campaigns will continue to pour millions of dollars into political ads, well-aware that they don’t always work. But Democrats should do so knowing that the sounder strategy is to use ads to gradually promote a candidate’s visibility, name recognition and credibility, and to build a strong case against the adversary, rather than stake everything on one hideous attack ad.

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