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Why so many negative ads? They positively work, say political experts

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 8, 2010 - According to the voter database that Democratic U.S. Senate nominee Robin Carnahan was using last weekend as she went door-to-door in St. Peters, Heidi Oberle should be a potential supporter.

But, so far, Oberle is not in Carnahan's corner. But Republican rival Roy Blunt shouldn't count on Oberle, either.

"It's all these negative ads,'' said Oberle, with more than a tinge of irritation, as she prepared to back out of her suburban driveway. "They are totally turning me off!"

At the moment, Oberle explained, she wasn't sure she was going to vote for anybody for the U.S. Senate seat. Oberle added that Carnahan "assured me there will be a change in her ads soon."

Carnahan's campaign did, indeed, go up this week up with two new TV ads. Friday's new spotmay be to Oberle's liking: Carnahan faces the camera and discusses her views on the economy and business.

The other new ad, like most of its predecessors, is not a positive spot. This onehits Blunt hard, by implying a link between one of his congressional earmarks that helped a California firm and subsequent campaign donations he received from some its executives and flights on the firm's private plane.

Blunt also went up today with a largely positive ad, in which he briefly brings up his standard accusations against Carnahan and then contrasts that with a rosy picture of his own economic views.

However, Blunt has been hammering Carnahan for days with an attack adthat ties her and her congressman brother, U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan, to $107 million in federal stimulus aid that went to their younger brother's mid-Missouri wind farm.

Both candidates defend their own attack spots, while contending that their opponent's ad is inaccurate and misleading.

Blunt says that Carnahan's mother, then Sen. Jean Carnahan, voted for the same measure that helped the California firm. Carnahan's campaign replies that Blunt, not Jean Carnahan, got the susequent campaign money and airplane perks.

As for the wind farm, Robin and Russ Carnahan -- with support from the Treasury Department -- say they had no role in their brother's stimulus grant, which went to more than 1,000 alternative energy companies. Blunt's campaign asserts that the aid illustrate the Carnahans' closeness to the Obama administration.

Those debates aside, consultants and experts say there's a reason for all the negative ads: They work.

"They're devastatingly effective,'' said Republican consultant James Harris, who is overseeing the campaigns of several GOP candidates.

Fellow GOP consultant Jeff Roe, who's working on Republican Bill Corrigan's county executive race, offered up the obvious follow-up question, and his answer:

"Why do negative ads work? You have to ask the voter. Campaigns wouldn't do it if it wasn't effective."

George Connor, head of the political science department at Missouri State University, believes that the number of negative ads sends a signal as to the closeness of a contest.

The closer the race, the more negative the ads, Connor said. "If it's not close, the candidate who's ahead usually doesn't need to stoop to that."

Independent Groups Airing Many of the Harshest Ad Attacks

Ken Warren, a political science professor at St. Louis University who teaches classes on the topic of voter persuasion, said that the public often has the misconception that negative ads must be true to be aired.

"There's 'truth in advertising' laws governing business, but that doesn't apply to political ads,'' Warren said. As a result, he cautions viewers to probe the facts for themselves before concluding that a negative ad is true.

In fact, Warren added, studies show that "false negative ads'' are the most effective in swaying voters because "they're usually the hardest to refute" because the targeted candidate often finds it hard to come up with a clear and concise explanation of why the ad is false.

Two nonpartisan websites -- Factcheck.org and Politifact.com -- offer indepth examinations of the truths or inaccuracies of some political ads and campaign attacks. Neither site is regularly covering the Blunt-Carnahan race, but have occasionally weighed in. (For example, Read Politfact's analysis of an adabout Blunt's lobbyist connections and Factcheck's analysis of a Crossroads ad criticizing Robin Carnahan.)

During the final months of this campaign season, a sizable chunk of the negative ads aren't coming from the candidates.

Democratic consultant Richard Callow, who is working on County Executive Charlie Dooley's re-election campaign, contends that the independent groups who are spending millions of dollars to air attack ads in the state -- particularly in the U.S. Senate contest -- shoulder much of the blame for the crowd of negative ads that area TV viewers are seeing.

As he and Warren explain, the traditional campaign strategy calls for initial ads to be positive, to introduce the candidate to the viewer.

But independent groups' ads, said Callow, "skip the introduction and go straight for the jugular."

Candidates then are forced to follow suit.

In the case of the U.S. Senate contest, consultants in both camps agree that the Carnahan/Blunt attack ads generally haven't been as harsh as some of the latest spots put up by independent groups attacking one candidate or the other.

American Crossroads, a group co-founded by former Bush adviser Karl Rove, has spent more than $2 million on ads attacking Carnahan -- with the latest spot calling her "corrupt." The group has sparked controversy because most of its donors are anonymous.

The national Chamber of Commerce, which ran a blitz of anti-Carnahan spots in August, also is expected to soon go up with new spots. That organization lately has been pummeled with accusationsthat some of its donors -- also anonymous -- are foreign corporations, which by law are barred from contributing to U.S. political campaigns.

Meanwhile, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has been leading the pack in striking back, with a series of anti-Blunt attack ads that -- combined -- are expected to cost at least $4 million in air time. The most controversial was an early spot that took a jab at Blunt's lobbyist wife and made some questionable -- and, according to Blunt, inaccurate -- assertions about a property he and his wife own. In any case, the new ad obscures her image in a photo used in the spot.

A PAC called the Vote Kids Action Fund has begun airing anti-Blunt spots this week on cable and broadcast stations. The group cites Blunt's congressional votes against the federal State Children's Health Insurance Program, which affected 60,000 low-income children in Missouri, advocates say. It also cites Blunt's votes to trim federal spending on child-support enforcement, and votes against the federal Head Start and college loan programs.

But the Senate race isn't the only contest that's largely gone negative.

Also producing a flurry of negative ads -- on TV and in mailings -- are the two highest-profile regional contests: the Third District congressional race between Democratic incumbent Russ Carnahan and Republican Ed Martin, and the St. Louis County executive battle between Democratic incumbent Charlie Dooley and Republican Bill Corrigan.

Police science professor Warren says it's ironic that, in all the races, the negative ads -- and the millions spent on them -- are primarily aimed at a small sliver of the potential electorate.

"All of these negative ads are trying to appeal to the 8-10 percent of the electorate who are truly undecided," he said. The rest of the voters -- especially in lower turnout elections like midterms -- usually "have already made up their minds."

Negative ads, true or false, fall into several categories

Speaking in general, Republican consultant John Hancock said that negative ads tend to fall within three categories:

  • Innoculating ads, where a candidate's ads "attack in areas where you're weak yourself. "
  • "Fitness attacks," which challenge a rival's fitness for office
  • Contrast ads, where candidates attack a rival's stance, while presenting the candidate's alternative view.

Hancock says that contrast ads (which include Blunt's newest spot) traditionally have been the most effective.
But overall, Hancock contends that the value of negative ads has been weakened by their sheer number -- and the multiplying of media outlets.

"The sheer abundance of negative ads," he explained, can prompt potential voters to become cynical and believe all politicians and candidates "suffer from the same set of ills" highlighted in attack ads.

The emergence of social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, and the splintering of TV viewer habits also have had an impact, Hancock said. "It makes it harder to track an ad's effectiveness" because it's unclear how many potential voters have truly seen the spot.

"Occasionally you get a negative ad that really works," he added, saying that campaigns usually can tell within a few days -- thanks to internal tracking polls -- if an ad is particularly swaying voters.

Experts say such an ad is usually evident to viewers because the campaign keeps such an attack ad on the air longer than the typical week-long run.

In Missouri's U.S. Senate race, the most-recent examples of long-running ads include Carnahan's attack ad featuring Fox News anchor Chris Wallace grilling Blunt, and Blunt's wind-farm spot.

Both political science professors, Warren and Connor, warn that some negative ads become ineffective because their claims seem "so outrageous," as Warren put it.

Connor said that a big difference this year, in his view, is that some negative ads take on the candidates' relatives. He cites that DSCC spot mentioning Blunt's wife, and the wind farm ad about the Carnahans' brother.

Callow and other consultants acknowledge that the danger of negative ads is that the attacker's approval ratings usually decline, along with the targeted candidate.

And the barrage of ads can turn off voters like Heidi Oberle.

In fact, Warren suspects that the proliferation of negative campaigns and attack ads is among the reasons why fewer people are casting ballots at all.

Still, nobody expects to see a change -- especially this year.

Voters and viewers are "probably in for another three weeks of this before it gets better," said Roe.

Why? The last week usually sees a glut of positive ads, said Roe, as candidates shift to positive spots as their "closing argument" to voters.

But Callow predicts that the independent groups will remain on the air, and remain on the attack, until Nov. 2.

Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.