Caricatures and broad-brush strokes — that’s what political ads are amounting to this time around.
“A lot of ads are really trying to put opponents on both sides into their respective typology,” said political analyst Dean Spiliotes.
Republicans are broadly painting any Democrats as big-spending, big-taxing liberals, “almost socialist in their approaches to policies,” Spiliotes said. Democrats, on the other hand, are vilifying Republicans for their assault on women’s rights and for their support of the tea party.
It’s not a new technique, but it is a growing one. Candidates are doing it. Advocacy groups are doing it. Super PACs are doing it. It has made for murky waters for the average voter trying to decipher who stands for what, political analysts say.
So whether there is any truth to those caricatures or not, Ann Kuster is portraying her opponent, Rep. Charlie Bass, as a tea party Republican, both in public comments and in political ads. Bass, on the other hand, is painting Kuster as a big-spending liberal, even though she’s never been in a position as an elected policy maker to be that.
Of course, Bass scoffs at the idea of being a tea party Republican, and Kuster asserts she hasn’t suggested increasing spending. The idea seems to be to get voters to think all Democrats are this, or all Republicans are that.
“There’s almost no nuance at all,” Spiliotes said.
Perhaps the over-use of caricatures is a phenomenon limited to this election cycle. If not, it certainly would seem to promulgate the notion that voters are likely to just pick the R or the D.
Outside groups take over
Hanging over this entire ad cycle is a proliferation of outside groups.
“It’s gotten to the point where I need to see the ‘I’m so and so and I approved this ad’ at the end before you know who it’s from,” Spiliotes said. “The advertising environment is so swamped with all different kinds of groups.”
Super PACs and campaigns are not allowed to coordinate at all. But that’s murky as well. The people running super PACs tend to be people who have worked on political campaigns previously. They know candidate messages and campaign strategies. So a super PAC that is targeting Rep. Frank Guinta may not have coordinated with Carol Shea-Porter’s campaign, but that doesn’t mean the super PAC staff don’t have a solid understanding of Shea-Porter’s campaign strategy and message. They can play off that.
“Even if it isn’t outright coordination, increasingly these groups are being run by prior staffers...,” Spiliotes said.
Super PAC involvement started to arrive on the political scene in 2000, but at that time those groups were more isolated. Super PACs today are much more in sync with campaigns and candidate messaging.
“All the ads are blurring together,” Spiliotes said. “I do think it is problematic for voters.”
There are two sides to super PACs from campaign perspectives. On the one hand, if super PACs are active in a particular race working against a candidate, the opponent would presumably have less work to do. If an outside group is hitting gubernatorial candidate Ovide Lamontagne hard on a particular issue, Maggie Hassan doesn’t have to waste campaign resources on doing the same thing.
“The downside is that campaigns can’t control the message as well,” Spiliotes said.
Political ads are always more negative than positive, Spiliotes said. There are some positive ones — a Hassan ad has the candidate speaking directly to the camera in a positive tone. But for the most part, ads are negative.
Contrast ads are also popular as well — ads that display the difference between one candidate and another on particular issues.
“Purely positive biographical ads, there are fewer and fewer of those,” Spiliotes said. “Outside groups certainly aren’t interested in those. And the campaigns end up ratcheting it up as well.” Voters should continue to expect, both leading up to this election and in future elections, a steady onslaught of negative ads, political analysts say.
President Barack Obama’s now famous Big Bird ad takes a swing at Mitt Romney for his desire to cut funding to PBS. The ad uses Big Bird to mock Romney: “Mitt Romney knows it’s not Wall Street you need to worry about; it’s Sesame Street.” Using comedy, the ad pushes the idea that Romney is out of touch with the problems facing the country. The strategy isn’t new. Humor has always been used during election cycles, as a way to belittle opponents.
There is one ad portraying a Kuster look-alike running from a series of labels, including big spending. Kuster’s campaign responded with an ad displaying Bass as a biological species of career politicians.
Humor and bad photography and music are big parts of election cycles. Ad creators use those tools to negatively portray opponents. But Spiliotes said he’s noticed more of that than usual in this cycle.