Given this dramatic increase in campaign spending by those with the most intimate knowledge of campaigns, and with the most at stake in the outcomes, it’s probably safe to conclude that this spending must work — that it can determine the outcome of close contests. In fact, it appears to work so well that it has now been embraced by a growing legion of “independent” entities with their own fundraising and campaign spending.
And how is the money spent? Anyone with a telephone, TV set or Internet connection has surely noticed that it is mainly used to produce an ever-increasing volume of negative, distorting and ideologically tinged advertising about opposing candidates and parties.
Contrary to what many believe, the central effect of such negative advertising isn’t to move voters from supporting another candidate to backing yours, as Mitt Romney and his allies have discovered during this primary season. The main effect is not even to move undecided voters into your column. No, the real effect of negative advertising is to energize and solidify support among your ideological base while turning everyone else off to the other candidate, the campaign and the entire electoral process. Negative advertising isn’t about changing minds; it’s about altering the composition of the voter pool on Election Day by turning moderate voters into non-voters.
This is particularly true in low-turnout elections such as primaries and midterm contests. But it is even true these days in high-turnout elections.
Peter Hart, the dean of American political pollsters, notes that President George W. Bush won Ohio in 2004by boosting voter turnout among conservatives in exurban and rural areas. If turnout in those areas had been the same as in the rest of the state, Bush would have lost Ohio and the election. And a key to the strategy was massive amounts of negative advertising.
Similarly, in 2008, Barack Obama was able to use negative advertising to move the traditionally Republican states of North Carolina and Virginia into the Democratic column, increasing turnout of reliably liberal voters around Charlotte and in Northern Virginia while dampening enthusiasm for the GOP candidate, Sen. John McCain, everywhere else.
Energizing the base has another important advantage: It increases campaign contributions from both small donors and rich zealots. That money can be plowed back into yet more negative advertising along with sophisticated get-out-the-vote efforts on Election Day. This self-reinforcing cycle creates a strong incentive for politicians to abandon the center and move permanently to the ideological extreme. You do not energize the base through moderation and compromise.
What makes this an effective and rational strategy, of course, is the phenomenon known as “free riding.” When you think about it, it’s pretty irrational for any of us to vote. During these endless campaigns, it takes an extraordinary amount of time and energy to inform yourself about the candidates and their positions. And it takes time and energy to interrupt your daily schedule and vote. And for what? Rarely, if ever, does any single vote make a difference in the outcome. The rational thing is to just stay home and let everyone else do their civic duty while we still enjoy the full benefits of democracy.