TOPICS > Politics

Midterm political ads get more positive spin

May 1, 2014 at 6:35 PM EDT
As 2014 midterm election kicks off, there are 20 percent more positive political TV ads than during the cycle two years ago. To understand the slight shift away from mudslinging, Judy Woodruff talks with ad-maker and consultant John Brabender and John Geer of Vanderbilt University.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The American midterm election season is about to heat up, with 13 primaries scheduled this month. That means tons of political TV ads will hit the airwaves. They are still overwhelmingly negative, but things have taken a bit of a turn away from the typical mudslinging, at least compared to 2012.

MAN: When Mitt Romney and Bain closed the plant, I lost my health care, and my family lost their health care. And a short time after that, my wife became ill.

JUDY WOODRUFF: This sort of negative ad by the pro-Obama super PAC Priorities USA was the norm for outside groups during the 2012 presidential campaign. And both sides got in on the action.

NARRATOR: We all know about Solyndra, the White House e-mails, the FBI raids. Solyndra investors raised campaign money for Obama. The government gives Solyndra half-a-billion in taxpayer money, politics as usual.

NARRATOR: Jack Kingston, a fighter.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, this year, some outside groups show signs of moving away from all negative, all the time. Kantar Media, which tracks all political advertising, reports 29 percent of outside ads so far this cycle have been positive, up from 20 percent two years ago.

In North Carolina, the Senate Majority PAC is running this ad in support of Democratic incumbent Kay Hagan.

MAN: She took on drug companies to lower the costs of prescriptions for seniors.

WOMAN: Voted to cut waste and fraud in Medicaid.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Opposing Hagan, Karl Rove’s American Crossroads group is backing Republican Thom Tillis in next week’s GOP primary.

NARRATOR: The conservative guts to replace Obamacare with honest health care reforms, protect our voter I.D. law. Thom Tillis, North Carolina values for a change.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Positive or negative, outside groups are already spending heavily, with Senate control up for grabs in November. The Wesleyan Media Project says 59 percent of ads run so far in Senate campaigns have come from outside groups.

The spending is sure to accelerate as the campaign heats up, and if history is any judge, the ads will just as surely turn more negative again.

To understand where we are now and what to expect as we get closer to November, John Brabender is a Republican ad-maker and consultant. He was an adviser to Rick Santorum’s presidential campaign in 2012. And John Geer is a professor of political science at Vanderbilt University and the author of the book “In Defense of Negativity: Attack Ads in Presidential Campaigns.”

And welcome, you both, to the NewsHour.

John Brabender, so we’re not talking about a massive shift here, as we reported.

JOHN BRABENDER, BrabenderCox: Yes. Anybody that is worried we’re going to…


JOHN BRABENDER: … that everybody has got a conscience all of a sudden in this industry, that hasn’t happened.

JUDY WOODRUFF: That’s right.

I mean, it was — we said it was two in 10. Now it’s three in 10 so far this year, but why any more positive ads?

JOHN BRABENDER: I think it is a combination of reasons.

First of all, I do think there was some negative fatigue last time, where people felt there was so much negative ads, they didn’t work in many cases, and so there is a tendency, let’s try positive. Second of all…

JUDY WOODRUFF: What do you mean?  Let me stop you. When you said they didn’t work in many cases, what do you mean?

JOHN BRABENDER: Well, people were looking at polling data in a lot of the Senate races and so forth where there was this overwhelming negative ads and they didn’t see a lot of polling numbers move.

So the conclusion that pollsters came up with is evidently negative ads don’t work like they used to. In fact, I would argue political ads don’t work in general like they used to.


JOHN BRABENDER: We’re uninvited guests in people’s home. They are poorly done. And as an industry, what we do is, instead of making them better or more interesting, we just run them more often.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, John Geer, what would you add to that? Why do you think there is any more — any increase in positive ads?

JOHN GEER, Vanderbilt University: Well, I think John’s got it right.

I mean, there’s maybe some fatigue out there, but the bottom line is, these things haven’t worked. You think about the amount of money that was spent in 2012, and at the presidential level, the dials were rarely moved.

Sometimes, in primaries, they can make a difference because the candidates are less well-known. But at the same time, primaries tend not to be as negative because you have got members of the same party question each other, attacking, but they are a little more reluctant to go super negative.

JUDY WOODRUFF: John Brabender, what would be the calculus? If you are an outside group and you want to help your candidate, what would be the circumstances that would lead you to put a positive message out right now, instead of negative?

JOHN BRABENDER: Well, I think a big part of it is, if you look, people started earlier this time.

And when do you start earlier, the ads are more positive in the beginning and then they move to become more negative because somebody is losing. Second of all, there’s a lot of primaries this time. So if you are a conservative group, you may want to help one conservative.

But it doesn’t mean that you want to take down a second conservative. And some there is a tendency to stay more positive and not go after somebody else who might agree with you nine out of 10 times instead of 10 out of 10 times.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, John Geer, pick up on that. I mean, it is the fact that you have got more people running in some of these primaries.

JOHN GEER: Oh, you do.

And when you have — the other thing about primaries is it is not just that Republicans don’t want to attack other Republicans, but when you have a multi-candidate race, you run the risk of attacking somebody, and then the third candidate comes out of the blue and all of a sudden wins because that person looks like they’re getting no criticism, and therefore they’re qualified.

JUDY WOODRUFF: John Brabender, what do you accomplish with a positive — what are some of the things you can get done with a positive ad?

JOHN BRABENDER: Well, it still comes down to, first of all, people want to like who they vote for.

There is a tendency for some consultants to want to throw everything out there, where they went to college, and all this stuff. People first and foremost want to know they like you and that they trust you. And so I do think the best positive ads are those that do feature the candidates in a way that they let people in, see the real them, not some facade, not some Hollywood glitz candidate, but authenticity I think makes a big difference in positive ads.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, John Geer, why wouldn’t there be more of it? You would think that every candidate, every outside group supporting a candidate would want to do something like that, but they don’t.

JOHN GEER: They tend not to.

But they may have learned some lessons from 2012. They are leading them to be a little bit more positive. I mean, it’s — one of the things about ads is that they have to tap something real, and that real may be negative, it may be positive. And right now people are trying to just get a positive feel for these candidates, move forward and say something that resonates with the public in a time when there’s a lot of unhappiness.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And let’s talk about that, John Brabender.

You both have referred to the fact that ads in general are just not having the impact that they used to. What is going on out there?

JOHN BRABENDER: Not just political ads, ads in general.

Think about this. One out of people who are under the age of 30 don’t own a TV. And 61 percent who are watching TV actually have some other device that they’re also looking at. And so when the commercials come on, they’re not paying attention.

And then, third of all, political ads, people now seem to have a filter that says I don’t believe it in many cases. And so the ads that are successful is when you do catch a candidate saying something and you can show they really did this. Those work. The ones where they are just negative music, negative picture, negative words, people just tune them out.

JUDY WOODRUFF: John Geer, what would you add to that? You have been studying people’s reactions to ads.

JOHN GEER: Well, I think actually ads — John is right. Ads aren’t having the same kind of effect.

But there is a really important component here that needs to be talked about, is a lot of these ads the audiences being targeted are journalists and pundits and commentators, because that shapes the narrative of the campaign. So political ads these days aren’t just about voters; they’re also trying to get journalists to cover the campaign in the way those candidates want coverage.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And are you suggesting that journalists prefer negative ads; is that the implication here?

JOHN GEER: Yes, absolutely. And that’s partly why we have a rise of negativity, because consultants know that the negative ads get the attention, and so therefore they produce them and journalists cover them. And it’s kind of an interesting cycle that arises.

JOHN BRABENDER: Absolutely correct.


JOHN BRABENDER: I mean, journalists don’t care to cover positive ads as much as they do negative ads, number one. And also the whole model has shifted. It used to be that the newspapers would write something and you would immediately create a TV commercial around maybe the negativity, or something, a negative story on your opponent.

Now you are targeting the media to get them to write something negative based upon what you are saying. And so the whole model has sort of changed backwards.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All the more reason why I’m glad we are talking about positive ads tonight.

If these television spots though aren’t working — and I’m going off briefly here into an area we weren’t supposed to go off into, John Geer — what is reaching people?

JOHN GEER: Well, I think one of the things that seems to be — matter more is actually turnout efforts, grassroots efforts to actually contact voters directly to get them to the polls.

I suspect that is what is really paying dividends these days. We don’t have very many swing voters out there. People are going to vote Democrat or Republican. They’re pretty much set in their partisan ways. I think the real issue is getting your base to turn out. And that is what is going to probably drive the 2014 election.

JOHN BRABENDER: Well, I think that’s right.

And I think more and more what campaigns are about though is talking to those people who are undecided, instead of the mass media, so to speak. I know at our firm we do a lot more digital work because we can use social, we can use online to find out more news-oriented seekers, rather than just try to blindly follow a lot of people who may not even turn out and vote.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, John Brabender, is the bottom line that you expect advertising to turn more negative, just typically negative for the rest of the campaign?

JOHN BRABENDER: Yes. If you want to go to Vegas and put something on a sure bet, I can tell you that there will be just as many negative ads this cycle as there were last cycle by the time we come to Election Day.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you agree with that, John Geer?

JOHN GEER: Absolutely. We will both go to Vegas together.



All right, on that uplifting note, John Geer, John Brabender, we thank you both.



JOHN GEER: Thank you.