As the media landscape has become littered with millions of dollars of outside group attack ads, serious questions have been raised about their effectiveness. Instead of standing out, these ads are simply partisan background noise; a blur of cookie-cutter attacks that voters are starting to ignore.
But, there is a silver lining here for candidates. With attack ads essentially outsourced to independent groups and the parties, candidates can finally do what they once were unable to do politically or financially: run more positive and fewer negative ads.
To be sure, outside groups have learned that they have to be more creative, personalized--and yes, positive--this cycle. That means trying to lift their friends up instead of simply trying to drag their foes down.
As Nathan Gonzalez reported this week in Roll Call, candidates and campaign committees have found a not-so-subtle way to help facilitate this strategy . They can legally share all-important high-quality candidate B-roll (i.e. video of candidates kissing babies, talking to firefighters, and hugging seniors) by posting easily downloadable video on their campaign websites. It is the internet equivalent of a flashing neon arrow to supporters saying, "hey guys, take this stuff. Right here!!"
Expect to see more outside group ads forgo out-of-focus pictures of the candidate with a "fill-in-the-blank" backdrop. In its place will be ads that look and feel like they have been shot in the district or state, because they actually have. This House Majority PAC ad in Arizona's 1st district is a prime example. In it, the pro-Democratic group uses publicly available high quality video of Democratic Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick talking to constituents interspersed with the rugged and rural landscape of this Northern Arizona district.
Even attack ads, like those by the pro-GOP Americans for Prosperity, feature testimonials of "regular people," instead of grainy photos of Obama or Nancy Pelosi.
At the end of the day, however, the candidates themselves are their most effective advocates. A straight-to-camera response ad is more powerful--and believable--than even the prettiest and highest quality ad voiced in the third-person. Voters feel less attached to their local representative than ever, using partisan cues more than personal ones, which means humanizing a candidate is more important than ever.
This is especially true if you are a candidate in the "wrong" state or district: a Democrat in a red state or a Republican in a blue one. In the absence of a compelling message, delivered in a personal, relatable way, voters simply fall on partisanship to guide them at the ballot box.
Voters feel less attached to their local representative than ever, using partisan cues more than personal ones, which means humanizing a candidate is more important than ever.
Plus, let's face it, this is what candidates and campaigns would rather be doing anyway. No one gets into politics because they are eager to run 10,000 points of attack ads on their opponent (with the exception of Frank Underwood, I suppose). In the pre-SuperPAC/Independent Expenditure era, they had little choice. Candidates who wanted to make their case directly to voters were often told by their campaign consultants that they needed to make a contrast with their opponent. They didn't have the money or the time to do both effectively.
Today, high-profile campaigns are well-aware that outside groups will attack their opponents. Plus, they have plenty of options for directing groups to the messages they think are the most effective. This gives the campaigns themselves more opportunities to do the positive and more creative stuff.
Even so, it's not enough to simply put your candidate to camera with fuzzy lighting and cute kids. The NRCC actually mocks Democrat Alex Sink's straight-to-camera media blitz in the Florida-13 special election with this spot. "You've seen Alex Sink's cute ads," says the narrator. "But what do we really know about her record?"
One veteran Democratic media consultant cautions that it's "also important for the campaign to establish a clear narrative and substantive contrast and demand outsiders follow it. When the campaign is humanizing, as you put it, and outsiders are doing gotcha it still adds up as tactical and insincere. The greater the noise level the more important for there to be a dominant storyline."
While outside groups are spending more than ever on campaign advertising, candidates themselves have more influence than it looks. Not only can they help steer their allies to their best material, but they can also send direct--and still perfectly legal--signals about effective strategy. Moreover, as voters become more disillusioned with politics, candidates have the opportunity to make a more personal and direct case for themselves. Whether it's Bill de Blasio's son or Heidi Heitkamp's batting cage, campaigns are finding creative ways to rise above the din of attack ads. This doesn't mean that they won't--or shouldn't--run negative ads. They will. But, at a time when voters are feeling as detached as ever from politicians, politicians have the opportunity to get more intimate with them.
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