The Negative News About Positive Political Ads

Near the end of Tuesday’s “On the Issues with Mike Gousha” session at the Law School, Gousha asked Mike Tate, chair of the Wisconsin Democratic Party, and Reince  Priebus, chair of the Wisconsin Republican Party, whether they thought candidates can win while running positive campaigns.

Neither directly answered the question from Gousha, the Law School’s Distinguished Fellow in Law and Public Policy. But Tate came closer.  You have to have to draw contrasts with your opponent, he said. And when one campaign launches an ad that is arguably negative, “it’s an arms race,” Tate said.  If you don’t respond, you risk losing. Voters remember negative ads, Tate said.

Priebus responded by criticizing Democratic campaigns for playing what he called “small ball” this fall, focusing on minor matters that they could use to attack Republicans instead of on major issues, like jobs, the economy, and the growth of government spending.

What neither said to Gousha’s question was, yes, you can win by staying positive.  

Also on Tuesday, Matt Lauer, host of NBC’s “Today” show, asked the major candidates for governor in California if they would agree to stay positive in their commercials for the last few days of the campaign. The audience at the event reacted with enthusiastic applause. But Republican Meg Whitman and Democrat Jerry Brown hemmed and hawed, and neither agreed. Why? Because that’s not the strategy either of their campaigns thinks is best for the homestretch.

One thing that’s clear from this highly combative political season in both Wisconsin and the nation is that the wisdom and/or necessity of going for the opponent’s perceived weak spots is one thing Republicans and Democrats agree on. They both do it; they’re going to keep doing it; and, as independent spending on advertisement skyrockets, the organizations that have joined in the fray are even more oriented to it.

Feel free to complain about the tone of the campaigns (I do). But ask yourself what ads stick in your own mind or seem to have influenced public opinion, best as you can tell. It’s not so likely that the kinder, gentler ads are the honest answer.

Meantime, a few other thoughts from Tate and Priebus at the Law School:

Priebus, after Tate talked about how he was optimistic about the chances of Democrats in next Tuesday’s election: “Mike’s a lot like I sounded before the ’08 election. . . . I know what it’s like to get killed in an election. I know what it’s like to put on that smiling face before walking off a cliff.”

Tate, after Gousha asked if Tom Barrett, the Democratic candidate for governor, would get 60 percent of the vote in Milwaukee County, considered by some a requirement for a Democrat to win a statewide race:  “The ultimate challenge” for Barrett is how he will do in the Milwaukee and Green Bay areas. But, Tate said, Barrett is running strong in Milwaukee County and is likely to hit the 60 percent mark.

Priebus:  “The party that wins is the party that has the enthusiasm from the ground up, not manufactured from the top down.”

Tate:  “We have seen a closing of the enthusiasm gap.”

Priebus:  “The Mark Neumann voter is certainly not going to be a Tom Barrett voter and there aren’t going to be an awful lot of Republicans staying home.” Republican candidate Scott Walker beat Neumann in the September primary, but Neumann outpolled Walker in much of western Wisconsin.

Tate: The publicly-released polls are under-sampling young voters and cell phone users. One of the big challenges in telephone polling today is that so many voters 35 and under do not have conventional land line phones. Polling he has seen that includes more cell phone users is more favorable to Democrats.

Priebus: “Trends matter. I don’t see any trends away from Republicans right now.”  Tate, he said, was grasping for straws.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Daniel Friedman

    I believe that Jerry Brown agreed to stop running negative ads if Whitman also would. See,0,7851495.story She did not seem amenable to that compromise which drew boos from the National Women’s Conference audience. I think the fact that the question was asked at a women’s conference presents an interesting issue as to whether there is a gender break down in voters’ responses to negative ads/campaigns.

  2. David Papke

    I am struck less by the negativity in the current ads in the Wisconsin races for Governor and U.S. Senator and more by the deception and duplicity on which those negative ads rest. Candidates and the special interest organizations supporting one candidate or another repeatedly twist the facts and misportray the opposing candidate’s actions and positions. The ads are rife with disrespect for voters’ understanding of what candidates have done and stood for. I’m inclined to vote for candidates that insult me the least!

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