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Negative campaigns: Winds of change sweeping from the plain?
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Negative campaigns: Winds of change sweeping from the plain?

While voters consistently self-report that negative advertising is a turn-off, the results say something else. Negative advertising works. It works consistently and well. Candidates who run happy campaigns mostly end up dripping tears on election night. But that didn’t happen in Oklahoma. It didn’t happen in Virginia. And the same dynamic may well be in play here in Arizona.

James Lankford will be the next U.S. senator from Oklahoma. That’s not surprising. Why he won is. Some supporters of his challenger, former Oklahoma Speaker of the House T.W. Shannon, will point to experience, race (Shannon is an African-American member of the Chickasaw Nation), or finances. But none of those things cost Shannon the race.

In Virginia, Eric Cantor was widely regarded as lock to defeat his meagerly funded challenger, Dave Brat. After rolling millions of dollars into attacking Brat, Cantor was so confident of victory that he spent election night hosting another fundraiser – in Washington, D.C.

And here in Arizona, most pundits and political observers – including myself – spent months calling the Republican primary for governor a two horse race between Christine Jones and Doug Ducey. Then Ducey and Jones, with the help of millions of dollars in outside spending, unleashed a seemingly endless barrage of charges and counter-charges at one another – and paved the way for another poorly funded candidate, former Mesa Mayor Scott Smith, to leap into contention.

Shannon and Cantor lost because they went negative. Ducey and Jones may soon follow suit.

Those results should shock the political classes.

Now, let’s be clear: nobody “likes” negative advertising. While campaign operatives may chortle in their cubbyholes about the latest hit on their opponent, the wider public has never shared their glee. Negative advertising isn’t subtle, but its effects traditionally are. Negative ads are designed to worm their way into your subconscious, reducing the impetus for undecided voters to support a given candidate. As much as anything else, negative ads are about voter suppression.

What’s different now is that pretty much all of the negative advertising in Arizona and Oklahoma came from independent expenditures, and not from the candidates themselves. (In Virginia, Cantor spent millions of his own money attacking Brat, but also “benefited” from a barrage of independent expenditure spending against his opponent.) And it’s that dynamic that may be changing the public reaction to negative advertising.

Historically, negative advertising was somewhat limited. A well-funded U.S. congressional candidate typically has a budget of about $1.5 million. Statewide candidates for U.S. Senate and governor have more – perhaps as much as $4 to $5 million – in their kitties, but have to spread their spending over more media markets. And they can’t spend ALL that money attacking their opponent. Candidates still have to establish their own message (nobody wins on negative alone) and pay for their day-to-day operations. At most, a candidate might be able to spend 15-20 percent of their cash on attack ads. The result was that voters in a given market might have seen the equivalent of a few hundred thousand dollars worth of negative advertising, at most. Not anymore.

Voters are now barraged with a never-ending parade of negative advertising courtesy of a succession of independent political expenditures (or “dark money orgs” if you prefer). For example, in 2012, the battle between Ron Barber and Martha McSally saw more than $3 million in outside spending, almost all of it negative. This year there is likely to be more. And although we don’t have accurate numbers yet, this year’s Republican gubernatorial primary has already seen at least that amount of outside spending, again, all of it negative.

Voters are being overwhelmed with attacks, and they are responding by punishing the attackers, even when the attacks aren’t leveled by the candidate themselves (in Oklahoma, Shannon ran mostly positive ads, but was “bolstered” by more than a million dollars in outside attacks). Conversely, candidates who run on their own positive messaging – as both Lankford and Brat were able to do in their primaries – may have a significant advantage in the current climate.

It’s still too early to tell, of course. But if this trend continues there are going to be a lot of consultants across the country, on both sides of the aisle, lamely attempting to spin the fruitlessness of their attack-dog tactics after the election, because there isn’t any sign that the political classes are paying attention to this particular revolt of the masses.

Sam Stone is a Republican political consultant in Southern Arizona.

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