Newspaper article MinnPost.com

The Dirty Secret Behind Attack Ads

Newspaper article MinnPost.com

The Dirty Secret Behind Attack Ads

Article excerpt

This the eighth story in a series comparing the U.S. system of politics and elections with other democracies around the world.

I mentioned a couple of installments back that Curtis Gans of the Center for the Study of American Electorate is convinced that negative campaign ads contribute to lower voter participation by causing many Americans to believe that their only choice is between bad and worse.

One former Minnesota congressional candidate says that is exactly the purpose.

Jim Meffert of Edina was the Democratic nominee for the U.S. House in Minnesota's Third District in 2010. Before that he was involved in lobbying, grassroots politics and in charge of some state and federal PACs. So he has looked at the strategies behind campaign advertising from several insider perspectives. He told me that the primary purpose of late negative advertising is not to win votes for yourself but to reach weak supporters of your opponent in hopes of persuading them that it's not worth voting at all.

Early in the campaign, the main message is positive, Meffert said. You are introducing yourself, trying to get every possible pocket of support motivated to vote for you. Mid-campaign, he said, many ads are aimed at impressing potential donors that you at least have enough money to be on the air, and are trying convince them that if they will write some checks so you can air even more ads, you might have a chance to win. The funders are extremely pragmatic about not wasting resources on anyone who has no chance.

By the last stretch, when the most intense advertising occurs, you and your allies will go negative against your opponent. By that time, you have done polling to find your opponent's weak spots and perhaps focus groups to test potential advertising messages that will have the greatest likelihood of undermining your opponent's supporters' interest in voting, Meffert said. …

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