The New Political Adscape

Attack ads focus political campaigns on the wrong things

One of the many benefits of UROPing in the Political Science Department this summer is that I get to keep a close eye on what’s happening on the campaign trail for the two contenders of the 2012 Presidential Election, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.

With Nov. 6 fast approaching, both campaigns are turning up the heat and intensifying their respective advertising sprees to obtain as much of the sought-after vote as possible. As of the time of writing, Gallup reports that the seven-day rolling average for both candidates is at 46 percent, meaning that if we had an election today, it would come down to less than a percentage point of difference. While this difference — or lack thereof — has several reasons, I’m going to focus on a specific one: attack ads.

As those of you who kept track of the Republican primaries will have noticed, thanks to the Citizens United decision of 2010, Super PACs have been the craze of the 2012 campaign season. Super PACs (Super Political Action Committees) are organizations that can campaign and raise money for political candidates. Unlike the candidates themselves, however, Super PACs are not required to disclose their donors and are allowed to accept unlimited amounts of money. The only catch is that Super PACs cannot coordinate directly with the candidate.

During the primary season, the Super PACs gave us a small glimpse into what “unlimited amounts of money” could mean for political campaigns. Dominating airtime in the states in which they were meant to sway voters, the content of attack ads have ranged from simple finger-pointing to a metaphorical lynching of the opposing candidate.

With the primary season over and general election campaigns in full swing, campaign ads naturally rise to the national scene. Some figures estimate that between Obama and Romney, the 2012 general elections will see an aggregate campaign spending of more than $1.5 billion. I think the debate over whether this sort of money is actually necessary for political campaigns, or whether it’s actively hurting the democratic process, is an issue to be discussed in its own right; however, it is not what I wish to address here. Instead, I want to focus on what this enormous sum of money is helping to fund and the direction in which they’re steering campaign politics.

Let’s first take the simplest and most obvious feature of attack ads: their negativity.

If you search for 2012 political ads online, what you will immediately notice is that almost none of them talk about the amazing things Obama will do with his healthcare plan or the piles of cash that the government will save after Romney repeals Obamacare. Instead, they focus on Obama overtaxing the middle class to death or Romney storing his money in Swiss or Cayman Islands bank accounts. Polling and other preliminary research into this type of advertising have already yielded results stating that its effects are dubious and marginal at best, if at all present.

I do have a suggestion to fix all this: instead of attacking the other candidate and having their aides claim that they’re “simply responding to the negative ads of the other guy,” candidates should highlight their own strengths and talk about the positive things they will accomplish if elected. I would prefer not to go the polls thinking to myself: “Well, this guy is less bad than the other one, so I’ll just vote for him.” The reason President Obama won the 2008 election was because he energized so many people and got them excited about voting for him, for “Change.” Personally, I’ve yet to meet a person who gets excited about how negatively he or she feels about someone.

Another issue that has become more apparent is the fact that the attack ads, which may be produced by a myriad of Super PACs, sometimes lose sight of their platforms. One example is Obama’s statement that declares: “If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that. Someone else made that happen,” a quote taken completely out of context and inaccurately represented. Another example is Romney’s having Bain Capital ship jobs to India and China — despite being away from the company to organize the Olympics and being liable for felony charges should he lie about leaving the company.

While I understand the necessity to stress particular ideas over others to get the message across more succinctly, this sometimes leads to incorrect information being passed around and creates confusion among the public as to what is rhetoric and what is factual evidence. Despite sources like FactCheck.org and PolitiFact.com that aim to differentiate fact from fiction, I don’t think we should have to doubt the accuracy of every claim made by these ads. Again, the right solution to this problem is to highlight the strengths of the candidate being supported instead of ruthlessly bashing the other candidate for their dreadful weaknesses.

My last point concerns the direction in time these ads are facing. A good chunk of these ads focuses on the past and how appallingly the opposing candidate handled things. Instead of asserting their strengths and how they might have addressed the same situation in a much better way, the ads simply state that the opponent did some bad things and therefore should not deserve the vote.

What I cannot understand is that this is not, once again, meant to convince me to vote for whomever may have handled the situation better. I am simply led to believe that by deciding not to vote for the supposedly inferior candidate, I would be in a position where not only do I have to vote for the other candidate because I have no other alternative, but also am endorsing the candidate whose alternative position I am not even being told. These sets of assumptions that are expected to trigger an automatic vote just do not follow sound logic. The best and simplest way to win someone’s vote remains this: proving to your potential voters that you will do it better, that your alternative is the superior way.

Citizens United showed us just how much power can be unleashed if we let corporations and people pour infinite amounts of money into political coffers. The result is apparent in the ferocity of the huge battle that is currently being fought between the two presidential candidates. The negativity displayed in this battle does threaten to not only push away independents who have yet to decide whom to vote for but also, for worse, foster apathy and disinterest among the public.

Instead of making me feel like I have no choice but to vote for one candidate because the other is clearly worse, I should be made to feel enthusiastic about the candidate I’m supporting. In order to continue to grant the public a chance to have an educated opinion combined with the willingness and a desire to vote, campaign ads should move away from negativity and recapture what they have been in the past — the shining beacons of hope, excitement, and anticipation.