Political ads seek to discourage opponents as much as motivate supporters, professor says

Political ads seek to discourage opponents as much as motivate supporters, professor says

By Louis Mayeux –

Political ads not only seek to motivate supporters. They also aim to dissuade the other side from voting, a political observer says.

While negative campaign ads “rile up supporters,” another primary purpose is to “de-mobilize the other side, discourage them so that they choose to stay home,” said Emory University political science professor Dr. Andra Gillespie.

With election day near, the barrage of TV ads seems as relentless as a Georgia Bulldogs pass rush. Although strong early voting shows many have made up their minds, others are still weighing their decisions.

“There’s a significant portion of voters who wait until election day to vote,” Gillespie said. In the Senate race between Democratic nominee Michelle Nunn and Republican David Perdue, the volley of ads “signals that the race is competitive. That’s an important signal to those still undecided that there’s something that could come out that could be persuasive to them.”

The polls show a significant number of Georgians call themselves “independent.” But Gillespie said many of those favor one party or another. “I don’t consider them independents. A lot of those folks are leaners.”

Those who are truly undecided look at ads to give them “information that helps them make decisions,” she said.

While TV attacks draw criticism, Gillespie said “negative ads convey a lot information about candidates, especially when they provide citations. They play an important role in helping to disseminate information, of pitching to people who are yet undecided.”

A heavy outpouring of negative ads can have a boomerang effect on the candidate making the attack, she said.

“Toward the end of the campaign, candidates will shift from attack ads to focusing more on themselves before there’s any more hits in their favorability ratings,” she said. “It’s the art of timing. If it’s attack, attack, attack, there comes a time when it hurts you more than your opponent.”

While ads showing candidates and their families in a soft glow of light already are common, the national importance of the Georgia Senate race could bring a late storm of attack ads. Super PACs and Republican and Democratic groups are spending heavily because the competitive Georgia race could decide whether Democrats regain control of the Senate.

“This is a really tough year for Democrats, with more contested seats,” Gillespie said.

With Georgia’s GOP incumbent Sen. Saxby Chambliss retiring, the tight race between Nunn and Perdue gives the Democrats one of their few chances of gaining a seat from the Republicans. “There are very few places where the Democrats could pick up a seat,” Gillespie said. “The race has become incredibly competitive here.”

If the election as expected goes into a runoff, the national ads will “ratchet up more than we’ve seen so far,” she said. With the runoff delayed until Jan. 6, the holiday season might bring an outpouring of campaign ads. Bleary-eyed voters could begin to believe Santa’s been tied to outsourcing jobs or President Obama’s policies.

On the other hand, with poll analysts showing Republicans with a strong chance to take Senate control, the issue could be decided on Nov. 4. If Republicans reach a majority on election night, a Georgia runoff would turn anticlimactic.

Both sides see turnout as the key to winning. Gillespie said that the despite the prevalence of TV ads, “the personal campaign is the best way to turn people out to vote.” She said that if computerized voter canvassing and phone banking operations are “robust, that’s what’s going to drive up turnout.”

This is the so-called “ground game,” the robocalls, e-mails and even knocks on the door that to try to persuade individuals to go the polls. Obama’s 2012 victory over Mitt Romney was credited to the Democrats’ lead in computerized techniques. Now, Republicans say they have caught up, as highlighted in a Washington Post article Tuesday focusing on the GOP’s high-tech operations here in Cobb County.

Highlighting the importance of phone and computerized techniques, the Nunn campaign this week launched the “action Michelle Nunn” web site for volunteers to sign up. According to a campaign Facebook posting, the goal is to sign up 1,000 new volunteers by this weekend.

Of course, yard signs and fliers sent through the good old U.S. mail still play a significant role. The candidates also are furiously engaged on what remains the most potent ground game of all: getting out and shaking hands with voters.