Why so negative? That might be what many viewers of campaign ads wonder with each new presidential campaign season. And why does so much of the record sums raised by candidates go for advertising, both positive and negative? Scott Althaus is a professor of political science and of communication who studies campaign media and advertising strategies, and their effects on voting behavior. Althaus was interviewed by News Bureau social sciences editor Craig Chamberlain.
Many voters say they hate negative campaigns, so why do candidates run them?
Campaigns go negative, in part, to get important information out that the news media may not be inclined to get out. Typically the strategy is to try to reduce the opponent's positive ratings among voters and hope that doing so doesn't produce a rebound effect that draws down the favorability ratings of the candidate who sponsored the ad. We see negative campaigning throughout American history. We can go back to the election of 1804, in which Thomas Jefferson was re-elected, and in that campaign they didn't have 30-second spots in the way that we do right now, but they had campaign songs that were printed in newspapers. One of the songs used against Jefferson, sung to the tune of "Yankee Doodle Dandy," made reference to his alleged illicit relationship with one of his female slaves, Sally Hemings: "When pressed by load of state affairs, I seek to sport and dally; the sweetest solace of my cares is in the lap of Sally." That's negative, that's hard hitting, and that was 200 years ago. There's nothing new about negative campaigning. What's new is a better understanding of when, strategically, it's going to advantage one side or the other.
You believed early on that this campaign was destined to be especially negative. Why?
Typically when we're going into a presidential election cycle, one of the two candidates will be either the incumbent or his vice president. This election in 2008 is the first time in 56 years we've had two non-incumbent politicians running for president. Because of that, neither side can claim a clear hold on, or take the blame for, the record of the incumbent. That means that the information that's exchanged within the campaign is going to be potentially more important for shaping perceptions about which of these two politicians is more likely to do a good job in office. And because neither one is terribly well known, there's an opportunity for each side to try to discredit the other, and to try to paint the other side in the most negative light.
Why are ads so important in a campaign?
We have seen a tendency over time for more and more Americans to tune out from news of politics and government. Given this tendency, it becomes more and more challenging for campaigns to try to reach citizens with information they believe is important for citizens to consider on election day. If the campaigns can't do it through the mainstream news media, or if the mainstream news media put up a filter that focuses on certain events or certain issues rather than the ones the campaigns would like to talk about, then paid advertising becomes the vehicle through which the campaigns try to directly engage with the voters. A fair amount of campaign advertising aired during the general election season is placed in entertainment programming, where citizens are not necessarily looking for information about the campaign.
Can we learn anything from campaign ads?
Many people like to complain about ads being vacuous and trying to distract people from the real issues. But stepping back from that, it's also the case that the ads contain a lot of important information about the candidates' issue priorities and the kinds of policy promises that they intend to keep down the road if they are elected. There's a fair amount of research suggesting that the ordinary citizen can pull a great deal of policy-relevant information out of a 30-second ad, and in some ways more information than you might get from the typical minute-and-a-half news story.
Do ads actually change many voters' minds?
Traditionally, in the last several decades, it was thought that the main purpose of advertising was to persuade people who were undecided or independent, who weren't committed to one side or the other. Over time, however, it's become clearer that there are fewer people in the electorate whose minds aren't made up come election day. For that reason, while campaigns have not given up on trying to persuade independent voters, another purpose of ads is to motivate people already likely to support a candidate, but who may not be likely to get up and go to the polls and cast a ballot. You don't need to convince those likely supporters that you're the better candidate; you need to convince them to do something about it. And that's why we're seeing a lot of the negative advertising today, from both sides, that to some observers seems absurd and full of distortions and untruths. These ads aren't intended to win over the undecided voter so much as to draw media attention toward the candidate's preferred issues and to motivate the candidate's own base of likely supporters.