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Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Super PACs and the Power of Negative Thinking

melted television plays the news
It's a glimpse into most of our futures. There's a big old crapstorm rolling through America and the front has only passed on for a handful of states. Stick the kids in the basement, stock up on food, and board up your TV, radio, and mailbox. It's going to be bad.

Washington Post:

Negative ads were so prevalent in the final week before the Florida primary that they accounted for 92 percent of all campaign commercials that ran.

And the most heavily broadcast commercial this past weekend was not one featuring Mitt Romney or Newt Gingrich but Tom Brokaw, the former NBC News anchor whose image the Romney campaign co-opted for an ad that used a 25-second clip from an old newscast on Mr. Gingrich’s political troubles.

These figures, compiled by the Kantar Media Campaign Media Analysis Group, attest to the bitter turn the race took after the South Carolina primary when Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and the “super PACs” working to elect them unleashed a barrage of attacks.

Before we go any further, I want to say I'm not against negative ads. In fact, I'm for them. Pro-candidate ads are generally useless information about how the candidate will "fight to protect" things that offend no focus group. We learn, for example, that candidate X is for a good education for our children, a strong economy, and getting Washington back to work -- as if there's any candidate out there who's against all that. In short, positive ads tell us nothing. They're useless information. In them, candidates boldly stake a claim to those things guaranteed to appeal to everyone.


It's negative ads that provide actual useful information. Your vote is going to be much more influenced by negative ads -- even as you say you hate them -- than by the positive ads that make every candidate seem like a clone of the same person.

The problem with negative ads comes in the fact that they throw truth out the window. I would really, really, really like to see a truth in advertising law applied to campaign ads. If we could make sure that negative ads were as factual as possible (statements of opinion or hyperbole can always skirt the truth), they'd become a boon to the American voter. I want to know that candidate X voted to privatize Medicare or to invade Iraq. That's the sort of thing that will influence my vote, not the fact that a candidate promises to "stand up for families," just like every other candidate running for every other office. Part of the reason that people vote against things -- rather than for things -- is the fact that the only useful information given to us by candidates is mostly negative.

But if the problem isn't with the ads themselves, it's certainly with the volume. According to the report, "The bulk of the ads were run by Mr. Romney and his PAC, Restore Our Future, which spent a combined $15.4 million on television and radio advertising in Florida. That compares with $3.7 million for Mr. Gingrich and his allies..."

68% were anti-Gingrich, while 23% were anti-Romney. Gingrich went into Florida  with a decent lead after winning South Carolina. By election night, he was swamped. Mitt Romney basically bought the Florida primary from underneath Newt Gingrich (although Gingrich's moon plan probably didn't help him any). Thanks to Citizens United and the rise of the Super PAC, elections are for sale.


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