Political Attack Ads Impact Voter Perception In Elections

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Political attack ads have been used more during the 2012 campaign season than in previous years. According to a Wesleyan Media Project report from March, 70% of campaign ads were negative. That number far exceeds the mere 9.1% of negative ads at the same point during the 2008 election season.

While many of these political attack ads are funded by interest groups and Super PACs, the candidates have put their respective stamps of approval on plenty of attack ads of their own.

President Obama is currently outspending Mitt Romney on political ads, but Romney planned to hold many of his ads until the last weeks before Election Day. Both candidates have favored attack ads for their campaigns. A Washington Post graphic shows 85% of Romney’s spending went to negativing advertising and 74% of Obama’s $170 million.

“Even though voters say they don’t like negative campaigning, the ads are effective,” said Jack Cafferty of CNN. “Experts say negative ads tap into emotions like anxiety, fear and disgust that can push a voter away from a candidate.”

During an election year, negative campaign ads and political attacks are expected, but such divisive messages may be doing more than pushing voters away from an opposing candidate. A Rasmussen Reports survey shows that only 23% of Americans believe today’s children will be better off than their parents and that number is at a high for 2012.

According to Gallup, 53% of Americans also believe that the country’s economic condition is worsening overall and a Huffington Post poll chart shows that over half of Americans think that the nation is headed in the wrong direction. While these numbers show the pessimism of American voters, they do not conclusively find what is to blame. It could be the prominence of political attack ads , or it could be the repetitive reports of terrorist attacks and environmental dangers.

While such ads are supposedly effective, a study done by Vanderbilt University shows that viewers describe them as memorable. Whether or not viewers like the ads is not the priority; it is being able instill that voice of doubt in a voters mind when Election Day comes.

American politics are becoming increasingly polarized and these campaigns are deepening the divide. During Wednesday’s debate, Romney and Obama both spoke of working across party lines, but nothing of including independent-minded politicians. While more Americans identify themselves as independents, there has not been an increase in representation. The two dominant parties are constantly focused on one another and any independent voice is often lost in the crossfire.

If this election season is any indication of what to expect in coming years, the partisan divide is only going to deepen. Political attack ads are another tool used by partisan groups to polarize the electorate in their favor. With 38% of independents describing such ads as “memorable,” there isn’t much of an incentive for a change in strategy.

 

The Independent Voter Network is dedicated to providing political analysis, unfiltered news, and rational commentary in an effort to elevate the level of our public discourse.


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  1. Blaz Gutierrez Maybe there's a place for negative ads. If independent voters are recognizing them as 'memorable' then there's little doubt in my mind that independent voters will also see behind the attack and seek more substance. Let the parties distance themselves from the voters. Fine by me!
  2. Lucas Eaves Coming from a country where you are not allowed to say the name of your competitor in normal commercial ads, it is even more baffling to see that with two presidential candidates. As sad as it is, I still think this ads are highly entertaining.
  3. Alex Gauthier With no third party in the picture, candidates only have to turn voters off of their one opponent.
  4. Michael Higham The rise of Super PACs are, I believe, a big reason for the onslaught of negative ads. The candidates are not directly accountable to their respective Super PACs so, in a way, SPACs are free to say and do what they want with little consequence. So not only is there an unlimited influence of money in SPACs, but they are free to say what they want.
  5. Brenda Evans You're not alone in that thinking Michael. All fingers point to super PACs.
  6. Jane Susskind Negative ads may be effective in the short-term, but in the long run they seem to make voters pessimistic and degrade the standard for political discussion. Instead of threatening Americans into voting, politicians should be encouraging them to. There's something wrong in modern campaigning when politicians are trying to mobilize voters based on "anxiety, fear and disgust."
  7. Matt Metzner Political ads only have to work within the short-term so they stick to what they know. Politicians aren't known for their marketing creativity and innovation in the arena is quickly extinguished. Organizations who have a long-term agenda can afford to stick with positive messaging and slow cultural shifts toward their positions. Campaigns don't have that luxury.
  8. Chad Peace agreed.
8 comments
Blaz Gutierrez
Blaz Gutierrez

Maybe there's a place for negative ads. If independent voters are recognizing them as 'memorable' then there's little doubt in my mind that independent voters will also see behind the attack and seek more substance.

Let the parties distance themselves from the voters. Fine by me!

Lucas Eaves
Lucas Eaves

Coming from a country where you are not allowed to say the name of your competitor in normal commercial ads, it is even more baffling to see that with two presidential candidates. As sad as it is, I still think this ads are highly entertaining.

Alex Gauthier
Alex Gauthier

With no third party in the picture, candidates only have to turn voters off of their one opponent.

Michael Higham
Michael Higham

The rise of Super PACs are, I believe, a big reason for the onslaught of negative ads. The candidates are not directly accountable to their respective Super PACs so, in a way, SPACs are free to say and do what they want with little consequence. So not only is there an unlimited influence of money in SPACs, but they are free to say what they want.

Jane Susskind
Jane Susskind

Negative ads may be effective in the short-term, but in the long run they seem to make voters pessimistic and degrade the standard for political discussion. Instead of threatening Americans into voting, politicians should be encouraging them to. There's something wrong in modern campaigning when politicians are trying to mobilize voters based on "anxiety, fear and disgust."

Brenda Evans
Brenda Evans

You're not alone in that thinking Michael. All fingers point to super PACs.

Matt Metzner
Matt Metzner

Political ads only have to work within the short-term so they stick to what they know. Politicians aren't known for their marketing creativity and innovation in the arena is quickly extinguished. Organizations who have a long-term agenda can afford to stick with positive messaging and slow cultural shifts toward their positions. Campaigns don't have that luxury.