Saturday, October 28, 2006

Negative Advertising

The 2006 midterm elections are hot hot hot.

The races, already competitive coming in to October, became even more so as the Republicans were knocked off message by the Foley Page scandal (in case you've been in a cave the past month, Representative Foley of Florida sent naughty messages - in Tony Snow's words - to young male Pages). Now, as I've said since 2000, it's the Democrats' races to lose.

The strategies of the two parties this election season are noteworthy for their differences. The Republican National Committee is doing what it's been doing successfully for 10 years, which is to raise huge sums of money from big donors, then funnel that money into 10 or 15 close races, more-or-less ignorning the rest of the country.

This had been the Democratic strategy until Howard Dean became Chariman of the DNC. His strategy, which is hated by the old-time Democrats, has been to not raise huge sums of money from a few key donors, and not to spend money on only a handful of targeted races. Instead, Dean has been raising money from small donors (sound familiar?) from across the country, and then funneling that money into local Democratic party organizations everywhere - even Alaska.

The thinking behind the strategy is that the Democratic party must rebuild its grassroots base, and in so doing eventually be able to win races in areas that Democrats have not seen victories in decades, such as the South.

The problem is that there is a spectacular imbalance between the two parties. Republicans have at least $69 million in their coffers. Democrats have in the neighborhood of $14 million. Given the strong correlation between money spent in a race and winning, this could prove problematic for Democrats.

There's a second notable difference in the parties' strategies. According to a new report from the non-partisan Factcheck.org. , Republican Campaign Committee ads in targeted districts have been attacking Democratic opponents on their character. Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee ads have attacked Republican opponents on their policy positions.

Now, the Democratical ads are often incorrect or misleading in their attacks - so I do not want to appear to be defending the Democratic strategy. But, the Republican attack ads are classic mudslinging.

Although character can be an issue in a campaign, for example if a politician has been found to be involved in illegal doings the voters have a right to know (take, for example, the Comptroller's race in New York, with Alan Hevesi illegally using a state driver for personal use). Often, though, these character attacks are completely baseless, and aim only to demean or smear the name of the Democratic opponent.

Perhaps, the most controversial ad has been the character attack on Harold Ford, a black Democrat running in Tenneessee against white Republican Bob Corker. The person-on-the-street ad shows average people saying that Ford was right to rasie money from the porn industry, to reinstitute the "death" tax, and to let Canada deal with North Korea. The most controversial element is the sexy blonde who says she met Ford at a Playboy Bunny party. The ad ends with her winking to the camera and telling Ford to "call me."

The ad, at its most innocent, calls into question both Ford's policy positions and his character (raising money from the porn industry and attending Playboy parties is meant to be sleazy). At worst, as John Geer notes (whose book on negative advertising my grad students will be reading soon), the ad plays into fears white people have of interracial dating and sex.

Ken Mehlman, RNC chair initially said the ad was not racist and that the RNC wasn't involved in making it. Later, he corrected that statement (the RNC did, indeed, create and pay for the ad), and the ad is no longer playing. But, many other sleazy ads are.

So, at a 10,000 foot view it seems that Republicans are doing what they've been doing and Democrats are trying something new. It remains to be seen which tactics will work. For the sake of democracy, I hope that we could have less mudslinging, more accurate attacks on policy positions, and more energy and money and spent across the country and not just on 10 races in a few key states. But campaigns rarely are meant to better the democracy . . . .

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