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Those Early Negative Ads

- November 28, 2011

Jeremy Peters discusses the GOP’s ad campaign against Obama, which is well underway.  I find this reporting necessary and valuable, but Peters misses an opportunity here:

bq. But going negative so early also carries substantial risks. One is that many voters are not yet paying much attention to the campaign and will not do so until much closer to next November, meaning the advertising expenditures could be largely wasted. And negative messages now could alienate moderate and independent voters who blame excessive partisanship for Washington’s troubles in addressing the nation’s big problems.

In the same edition of the NY Times, Jim Rutenberg says something similar:

bq. In seeking to disqualify their opponent, they will have to be careful not to alienate critical independent voters, who react badly to negative campaigning.

Two points.  First, reporting about early campaign ads can go beyond simply stating what effects they “could” have.  There’s research that reporters could cite or incorporate.  In my attempt to summarize it — ironically, published at 538 on the NY Times website — I noted several studies that have found advertising effects to be short-lived.  These studies suggest whatever boost a candidate or party gets from advertising will dissipate quickly, perhaps within a week.  And this may be true even of advertising much later in the cycle.  Does this mean that all early advertising is pointless?  I’m not yet sure.  We need more research first.  All I’m suggesting is that the findings from these studies deserve mention.

Second, reporting should avoid claims that advertising has effects that it may not actually have.  Both Peters and Rutenberg mention the conventional wisdom that negative advertising alienates independent voters.  In general, negative advertising has much smaller effects than its reputation would suggest — a point I also made at 538.  More specifically, reporting shouldn’t state categorically that independent voters are turned off or are “alienated” or “react badly” to negative campaigning.  The best existing summary of the evidence that I know of comes from this meta-analysis by Richard Lau, Lee Sigelman, and Ivy Brown Rovner.  They write:

We did find some support for the idea that whereas negative campaigns stimulate partisans to get out and vote, they are more likely to turn independents off on voting; however, too few studies (only nine) were involved in this hypothesis test to achieve the power necessary for conventional levels of statistical significance (t = 1.6, p < .07, one-tailed).

And it’s an open question whether even these 9 studies adequately capture the campaign environment as it will be experienced by voters in 2012.  So the conventional wisdom is not necessarily wrong, but I think it is typically expressed with far too much confidence.

And one more postscript.  Rutenberg:

bq. The result is not your college-age daughter’s Obama campaign of hopeful, transcendent politics. If 2008 was about lifting Mr. Obama up, 2012 will have at least some strong element of dragging down his Republican opponent (who the campaign believes will most likely be Mitt Romney). If 2008 was about “Yes We Can” and limitless possibility, 2012 will be to some degree about why we couldn’t (“Republican intransigence”), and why we shouldn’t, at least when it comes to anything the Republican nominee proposes (“His party got us here in the first place”). As Mr. Obama recently told a group of supporters in the deflated liberal bastion of San Francisco, “The Hope poster is kind of faded and a little dog-eared.”

I’ll say it again: 2008 was not just “about lifting Obama up.”  He was a quite frequent negative campaigner even then.