Political scientists weigh the impact of negative ads

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(Host) The candidates running for statewide office spend hundreds of thousand of dollars in their quest to win an election. Much of the money goes toward advertising. As the election draws near, campaign ads become more hard hitting.

VPR’s Steve Zind has this report on the role negative advertising plays in Vermont politics.

(Zind) Election Day is upon us, and the candidates are turning up the heat. Campaigns are flooding the airwaves and filling mailboxes with hard-hitting ads targeting their opponents. The other side is crying foul and launching their own negative ads.

Linda Fowler is a professor of government at Dartmouth College and director of the Nelson Rockefeller Center. Fowler says there’s nothing wrong with ads that criticize a candidate, as long as they aren’t personal attacks and don’t distort the facts. Fowler says new research challenges the notion that negative ads make voters cynical and less likely to cast ballots:

(Fowler) “With some kinds of voters, negative ads actually mobilize them. They get energized about something. Certain kinds of voters tend to be more susceptible to this kind of advertising, particularly independent voters.”

(Zind) Fowler says political advertising follows a predictable arc. The campaign begins with ads designed to create positive image of the candidate. In the concluding weeks, ads are used to paint a negative portrait of the opposition.

The race for governor in Vermont has seen just such a pattern. For example, ads by Republican Jim Douglas accuse Democrat Doug Racine of changing his position on the issues.

(Sound from advertisement) “Doug Racine said he wouldn’t raise taxes, but then he flip flopped.”

(Fowler) “The flip-flop ad is an old chestnut in campaigns. That’s a legitimate thing to do, to point out inconsistencies in someone’s record. The question is whether the alleged flipping and flopping is accurate or not.”

(Zind) According to Jim Barnet of the Douglas campaign, the ad is right on target.

(Barnet) “The flip-flop ad is 100% factual. It’s meticulously documented.”

(Zind) Barnet says Racine’s ads targeting Douglas are the ones that are misrepresentative.

The other side sees it differently. Tom Hughes of the Racine campaign says his candidate’s ads criticizing Douglas are accurate, but Douglas’ ads are not.

(Hughes) “Jim Douglas’ ads completely mislead voters. Those accusations are, in fact, distortions.”

(Zind) Negative ads can themselves become a campaign issue as each side tries to convince the public that the opposition is playing dirty. If the voters are convinced that’s true, a negative ad can backfire.

That’s what happened in the 1990 campaign for Vermont’s House seat. Just before the election, incumbent Peter Smith began airing an ad alleging that challenger Bernie Sanders said he had been made physically ill by John F. Kennedy’s inaugural speech. The ads depicted Sanders as an enthusiastic supporter of Fidel Castro. The ads backfired when Smith’s campaign couldn’t accurately document the charges. They were seen as an attack on Sanders’ character and Smith ended up on the defensive.

(Nelson) “It just didn’t have the kind of credibility that Peter thought it did, and he suffered as a consequence. And voters of Vermont really smacked him in the head.”

(Zind) Garrison Nelson is a political science professor at the University of Vermont. Nelson says Vermont voters have a low tolerance for negative advertising that seems too strident or personal.

(Nelson) “It’s our small size and our chance to meet these politicians up close and personal that’s made the difference. We know these people and efforts to characterize them in these harsh lights just don’t work.”

(Zind) Nelson says he hasn’t seen anything in this year’s campaign advertising that is unfairly negative. He says Vermont has yet to see the kind of attack ads that have become commonplace in other parts of the country.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind.

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