By Craig Gilbert, Journal Sentinel
Published August 29, 2011
Political journalists are fond of declaring every election “the most negative ever.” It’s usually the product of hype and short memories.
But now we may actually have a campaign worthy of that title: the Wisconsin recalls.
Below is a breakdown of “positive” and “negative” ads that aired in major TV markets (Milwaukee, Madison, Green Bay and Minneapolis) during the summer recall fight. The chart is based on numbers obtained from the ad-tracking firm, Kantar Media CMAG.
Out of an estimated $12 million in campaign ads in these four markets, roughly 95% was spent on negative ads, 5% on positive ads. (CMAG defines “negative” ads as those that contain criticism of an opposing candidate; “positive” ads are those contain only positive information about one candidate and no negative information about the other).
“People are always wanting to say, ‘This campaign is the most negative!’” says Ken Goldstein, a political advertising scholar who currently runs CMAG.
This time, says Goldstein, “I’ll say it. I’ve never seen a campaign more negative.”
Goldstein is being descriptive, not judgmental. “Negative” ads aren’t inherently “bad.” They can be false or true, fair or unfair, issue-based or personal, as can “positive” ads. The sleaziest campaign ads are almost always negative ads. But so are the most informative, some studies suggest.
Why was this campaign so “negative?”
Goldstein offers several reasons. There were big stakes. The outcome was in doubt (competitive elections generate more negative ads). Most of the money was spent by independent groups, which tend to be more exclusively attack-oriented than candidates are. The challengers and their allies were making a case for recalling incumbent lawmakers. Incumbents and their allies had a counter-strategy of “disqualifying” their challengers (making them too unpalatable to consider voting for). Both sides were serving up hard-hitting rhetoric aimed at turning out their base.
“You have a perfect storm that’s going to lead to negativity,” says Goldstein.
Total spending in the recalls was far in excess of the nearly $12 million reflected in the CMAG numbers shown here. These figures are just for broadcast TV in the months of June, July and August. They don’t include most of the ads in the state’s smallest TV markets: La Crosse/Eau Claire and Wausau/Rhinelander, and as a result don’t reflect the contests in Republican Dan Kapanke’s district and Democrat Jim Holperin’s district. They don’t include spending on cable, radio, print or mail, or non-advertising spending such as get-out-the-vote drives.
But they do comprise most of the TV spending and a significant chunk of the overall recall spending.
They show the ad wars were fairly competitive in partisan terms. About 55% of that $12 million was spent by Democrats and their allies; 45% was spent by Republicans and their allies. They show that interest groups totally dominated the spending: 89% of the advertising was done by groups, only 11% by candidates.
The top-spending groups in these four markets were:
Most of those groups aired only negative ads. The biggest exception on this list was the American Federation for Children, which aired positive ads for GOP incumbents Alberta Darling and Luther Olsen, defending their education records against Democratic criticism.
The advertising aired by Democrats and their allies was 99% negative. The advertising aired by Republicans and their allies was 89% negative. The attacks were in some case policy-based and in some cases highly personal.
How does the preponderance of negative ads in the 2011 recalls compare to the advertising in a typical election cycle?
Using CMAG data, the Wesleyan Media Project found that purely positive ads represented 26% of all campaign spots aired nationally last fall in the 2010 races for House, Senate and governor. Based on those numbers, scholars Erika Fowler of Wesleyan and Travis Ridout of Washington State University concluded that 2010 was “the most negative (election) in recent history.” But even that election can’t compete with the Wisconsin recalls for negativity (where a mere 5% of the advertising was positive).
In a paper on the 2010 ad wars, Fowler and Rideout wrote that the heavily negative advertising in that cycle could have had a variety of consequences, based on previous research on the subject: it could have turned off some voters; it could have motivated others to vote by raising the political stakes; it could have even produced a more informed electorate, since negative ads tend to be more policy-oriented than positive ads.
For years, scholars have studied and debated these effects. One hugely influential study in the 1990s argued that negative ads reduce voter participation by essentially turning people off. But that study came at a time when turnout in America was declining and scholars were looking for explanations for that trend. Turnout has actually ticked upward in recent cycles (a period when negative advertising has increased).
Goldstein came to a different conclusion in his own academic research: that negative advertising, whether you like it or not, sometimes increased turnout. He examined ad data, election returns and voter surveys over the course of a decade.
“We never found it depressed turnout, and we never found it decreased knowledge,” he said.
The Wisconsin recalls were intensely negative yet generated pretty robust turnouts for summertime, stand-alone legislative elections (between 39% and 58% of voting-age adults in the most competitive races).
That by itself doesn’t settle anything about the effects of negative ads, says Goldstein, who says researchers are now looking at more nuanced questions. Do negative ads mobilize partisans but turn off independent and swing voters? Do emotion-packed or personal attacks play a different role than policy-based attacks?
In the kind of election we just had, it’s really hard to sort out the effects of negative ads on voting, says Goldstein, since “competitive elections lead to negative advertising -- and competitive elections also lead to high turnout.”