Senate ads distract and discourageby Mark Zdechlik, Minnesota Public Radio
If you've been watching TV lately you've certainly noticed all the political ads. Many of those ads are related to Minnesota's U.S. Senate race. Republican Norm Coleman and Democrat Al Franken are spending tens of millions of dollars on ads in what's become the most expensive Senate battle in the nation.
St. Paul, Minn. — Republican Sen. Norm Coleman and his Democratic challenger Al Franken are certain to shatter the all-time spending record for a Minnesota Senate campaign.
As of the last reporting period, Franken and Coleman together had raised nearly $28 million. For TV viewers in this region, all the money means more Senate campaign ads than ever before.
"Saturday Night Live isn't the only fiction Al Franken writes," said a Coleman ad.
"Is there anything Norm Coleman and his allies won't say to get reelected? The latest ads are among the most misleading," a Franken ad said.
Initially it was big news when Coleman or Franken rolled out a new ad. Now they're coming so quickly, it's hard just to keep up. "This may be the worst thing Norm Coleman has done," said another recent Franken ad.
"Another Franken ad, another lie," a Coleman ad said.
Clay Steinman teaches media and cultural studies at Macalester College in St. Paul. Steinman is a close observer of political advertising. He says the various spots from the candidates themselves, the political parties and outside groups are not intended to educate voters.
"The goal of advertising is to take things that are quite ordinary and make them seem like they're special," Steinman said. "The goal of political advertising is to take people who are normal people and make them seem especially bad, or occasionally seem good if you're doing positive advertising. So we should all have our guard up when we see these ads, in the same way that we do when we have ads that want to get into our pocket."
Steinman says most of the ads coming out of the Coleman and Franken camps are negative. He says that's typical of what's going on all over the country.
"In general, both sides feel like they have to emphasize personalities rather than issues, and they know that negative advertising works and so that's what they do," Steinman said.
University of Minnesota professor Ron Faber researches political communication. People generally say negative campaign ads turn them off. But Faber says attack ads work, even on the people who claim to hate them.
Faber says studies show people are much more likely to hold on to negative messages than positive ones.
"Negative information is much stronger," Faber said. "In fact, it takes about five positive pieces of information to equal one negative piece of information. So it's much more powerful in determining how you perceive someone."
Faber says attack ads also allow candidates to communicate with voters without the risk of alienating them by saying what they actually support.
He says the most egregious negative ads tend to generate news coverage, which amounts to free publicity for the candidate's not-so-nice message.
Faber says what's interesting to him about Minnesota Senate ads is the big-bucks, high-stakes back-and-forth that's developed between Coleman and Franken.
"There's a lot of response in the ads," Faber said. "One person will attack one thing, and then the other will try and rebut that, and then they go back and forth."
A recent Franken ad fits that mold.
"I'm sure you've seen Norm Coleman's ad showing old clips of me in some pretty, well, passionate moments," said Al Franken in one of his ads.
"There's a difference between outrage and being out of control," Coleman responded in an ad of his own.
U of M professor Ron Faber says the ads are like a dialogue.
"In some ways we get to see two people talking to each other, and trying to fight for what is the perception that we'll have," Faber said. "So it's a lot of spin that you normally see outside of advertising, actually taking place in advertising."
While negative ads work, they also irritate voters and drive down turnout at the polls. Clay Steinman from Macalester College says Republicans and Democrats take a risk when they go negative.
"People get less excited about going," Steinman said. "They say, 'A plague on both of their houses.' But low turnout historically benefits Republicans more than it benefits Democrats, given the demographics of voters."
Those demographics show GOP loyalists are generally more motivated to vote than Democrats. But many political analysts says it's unclear this year which base of voters, Republicans or Democrats, will be the most fired up.
Ron Faber from the U of M says with all of the fighting between Coleman and Franken, Independence Party candidate Dean Barkley has an opening to garner attention, sympathy and support.
Barkely has almost no money compared to Franken or Coleman, but he's promising a small number of quirky ads like those Jesse Ventura put up when he was running for governor 10 years ago. Faber says Barkley could make a splash.
"What stands out is something that's different from everybody else," Faber said. "So if [Barkley's] ads are the only ones that appear to be positive and above the fray, that will attract interest and attention."
Faber says even the nastiest campaigns tend to move from negative to positive ads a week or so before the election.
But Faber says that's not the case if one candidate is significantly trailing the other. In that scenario, Faber says negative ads are often launched like last-ditch, "Hail Mary" passes, in the hope that they'll somehow turn things around.
- Morning Edition, 10/01/2008, 6:50 a.m.