John Geer, national expert on political advertising, chair of the Department of Political Science at Vanderbilt University and author of In Defense of Negativity shares his thoughts on the latest campaign ad from the RGA and its potential impact on the last month of 2010 midterm campaigns.
C&E: Is the latest RGA ad “Four Weeks – Remember November” a game changer? Or rather a game solidifier since, one would argue, the GOP has the momentum at this point?
Geer: First of all it has to be a web ad, it is far too long for the air. But overall, it is pretty well done in its general quality. It builds to a pitch and maintains a pace. The thing that is interesting about it is it is almost like the worry now is making sure there is turnout. Making sure the base maintains the enthusiasm gap – The ad shows President Obama taking vacations, decorating the White House. I’m sure some of it is taken out of context, but the basic message is the overall context of the campaign. The Democratic message is basically that things are better but could have been worse. The GOP has to make an easier point that things aren’t better today. But the ad has substance, it cites a lot of data. It is a little long to be a televised ad, but it is an interesting ad and seems legitimate as part of this campaigns discussion.
C&E: You see the GOP is playing exclusively to the base in this ad?
Geer: If the Republicans have the tsunami people anticipate, and I’m not sure that it is coming, they are going to base [that tsunami] on the enthusiasm gap and this is what this ad is playing to. The “Remember November” type of thing- if you remember the old “Daisy Ad,” that ad was about making sure that [President Lyndon] Johnson’s people turned out. At the end of they ad, they asked people to participate. The stakes are too high to say home. So when elections are going to be one sided, the fear is that people will stay home and let the other guy make the investment of going to vote. That is another reason why negative ads are effective – it is part of the discussion. Democrats haven’t been effective in making their argument, partly because it is hard, but also because they haven’t been as skilled at making the case.
C&E: This is clearly an investment in time and capital just to rally a Republican base that is already, by most accounts, pretty well rallied.
Geer: Ah, but don’t forget that advertisements today have two intended audiences. There is an old assumption that ads are aimed at voters, but they are aimed at journalists too. For web ads, the people who are going to check out this ad will have made up their mind already. The effort is to get the discussion in the journalistic centers where people are absorbing [campaign related information]. Voters are not what this is about. Let me give you an example – The Paris Hilton ad in 2008 was intended to get journalists to discuss journalism as the issue rather than the economy. Political ads can serve a duel purpous in the public discussion.
C&E: So, basically, we fell for it?
Geer: In 2008 I discussed this concept with NPR, [the interviewer] said something like – John, you want us to do a story on why I’m an idiot? <laughs> No, of course not! If it had been a Democratic ad that had been positive it wouldn’t have been likely to capture your attention, but the negative ad does. Do you want to hear that Obama favors jobs and world peace? Of course not. These attacks are substantive too though – there are quotes being taken out of context, but nothing that even closely approaches misrepresentation or a lie. This is why negative ads are useful. Maybe the public will decide the GOP message is stronger – that’s what democracy is all about.
Dr. John Geer, who has been interviewed numerous times by all the major news networks, has written extensively on political campaigns, including articles on incivility in campaigns, the impact of negative campaigning on voter participation and the news media’s coverage of negativity. His most recent book, In Defense of Negativity, analyzes negative ads during the 1960-2004 presidential campaigns. The book received the prestigious Goldsmith Book Prize from the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public at Harvard University. Geer, who co-chairs Vanderbilt’s Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, also wrote From Tea Leaves to Opinion Polls and Nominating Presidents. This fall he is teaching a course on political campaigns and the electoral process. Previously, he’s co-taught courses on the presidential nominating process and the impact of genetics on political choices.
Noah Rothman is the online editor at C&E. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org