Negative Advertising: Changing voters’ minds.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Yesterday, I wrote an article entitled, “Negative Advertising: An essential means of voter education.” This piece looks at the flip side of negative advertising. From the campaign’s point of view, it’s as essential to winning as money. In fact, funding negative advertising may just be the primary reason the candidate needs money.

Yesterday’s piece was more academic. This one, on the other hand, reads more like a come-from-behind thriller, without all the shooting and car chases of course, or the street-savvy call girl with a heart who risks everything for the hero she knows will never love her. (Can you tell I prefer to write fiction?) Like the ads say for the “Monster Trucks” show, “Twenty dollars will buy you a whole seat, but you’ll only need the edge!”

As a case study, imagine the following statewide campaign for U.S. Senator. It’s a “blue” state where Democrat voters outnumber Republicans two-to-one. It’s a state where people tend to vote their party affiliations. Not incidentally, the incumbent, while in the Senate for only one term, was in the House 10 terms before that, and the Speaker of his state’s House of Delegates before that. He’s well known and very well funded. His opponent is a political newcomer with little name recognition to speak of, and less money.

The good news is that the incumbent is a do-nothing Senator who is the poster child for the 1960s adage, “If you’re not part of the solution,” which he isn’t, “you’re (insert the incumbent’s name here).” Not only is the incumbent a huge waste the $174,000 per year we pay our Senators, $1,044,000 per six year term, this particular incumbent has a tendency to accept large campaign contributions from PACs whose interests are aligned with his committee memberships. Apparently campaign finance reform isn’t a high priority on his legislative agenda.

More good news. There’s significant anti-incumbency sentiment among prospective voters. A substantial component of the incumbent’s traditional support is soft. Soft, but not undecided.

The media, including the major newspapers in the area, has basically been ignoring the race ever since the primary. Unfortunately, ignoring both candidates equally favors the incumbent, doesn’t it? The incumbent already has money and name recognition. The challenger has neither and can’t get the exposure and financial support he needs unless the media wakes up and does its part to help level the playing field. If the media waits long enough, the challenger won’t have the time or enough money to make his point – certainly not with the all-positive campaign he’s hell bent on running.

What to do? What to do?

Step 1: Do a poll. Find out how close you are and specifically why and where (geographically) you’re behind.

Good news: Despite a two-to-one party disadvantage, you’re only 10 points behind, the incumbent’s 55% to your 45%, thanks primarily to a positive Romney and/or negative Obama “halo effect.” It’s a relatively small state, so let’s say that each of those points is only 25,000 votes. You’ve got to change the minds of 125,001 voters. (Think about the math. The two candidates are 10 points or 250,000 votes apart. Moving 125,001 votes from the incumbent to the challenger wipes out the spread and gives our hero a one vote victory.)

Bad news: How’re you gonna do that when nobody knows your name? “Money,” that your campaign desperately needs, likes the spread, but is reluctant to contribute until they believe you’re going to win. Some cynical expression about “Nice guys never…” is keeping them on the sidelines.

Maybe you can debate the incumbent? But why would the incumbent agree to put you next to him, to give you the exposure you need to beat him? (Would you do that?) No. You’re going to have to take the initiative.

Step 2: You attack. It doesn’t have to be loud or vulgar, but it does have to be negative. You’re choice is simple. Do everything you can to get your name in the media by telling everyone how wonderful you are. (That sound you’re hearing is the collective yawning of radio and television stations and newspapers all over the state.) Or you can make the campaign about the incumbent’s shortcomings. Much more interesting, isn’t it? (The media loves a good fight and will instinctively to do its part.) You can, in other words, take the campaign to your opponent, challenging his right to re-election. He, in turn, can either lay back and take it or come to his defense. Either way, you’ve got the exposure you needed.

And what about “Money”? “Money” likes spunk. “Money,” private PACs as well as the RNC and NRSC (National Republican Senatorial Committee) and your state party, can smell an upset in the making.

Step 3. You use the money your campaign raises to run 15 second radio and TV spots – negative, but nonetheless honest and respectable in both content an style – until the 125,001 voters you need to move get the point.

How ‘bout them apples?

-Next Contestant

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