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News : Staying out of attack ads helps candidates duck consequences

Candidates who don't appear in their ads pay a price. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)


Political candidates who don’t appear in their campaign’s advertisements are able to “distance themselves” from the ad’s message, researchers say in a new study, potentially making it more difficult to hold politicians accountable for promises and attacks made during a campaign.

The paper, set to appear in the April issue of Electoral Studies, also found that national and statewide candidates in the U.S. are far less likely to star in ads, especially negative ones, when they are already in office and fending off a lesser-known challenger. 

Candidates may instead use surrogates and other indirect messaging to levy attacks on their opponents, which makes it more difficult for voters to associate those claims with the candidate who is responsible, said Kevin Banda, lead author of the paper and an assistant professor of political science at Texas Tech University.

“It’s a way to duck responsibility for those messages, which might make it harder for people to make up their mind about what they think about a candidate, or candidates in general, if they are disassociating themselves from their message,” Banda told The Academic Times.

In earlier research, Banda and his co-author, Jason Windett at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, found that critical ads in particular tend to yield mixed results: A short-term boost to support for the candidate who sponsored the ads is quickly “overwhelmed” by a long-term decrease in support due to the negative messaging.

Building on their previous findings, Banda and Windett set out to measure the extent to which candidates are motivated to associate themselves with their message, an angle previously unexplored by other research.

To this end, the pair analyzed campaign messaging data collected by the Wisconsin Advertising Project on presidential, congressional and gubernatorial races between 2000 and 2008, only including ads from major party candidates. 

Banda and Windett found political candidates in these races were least likely to star in their own television ads when those took on a negative or aggressive tone, followed by ads that contrast competing contenders for office.

The impact of tone and other variables on the decision to appear in ads was most severe in presidential elections, where the relationship had a negative coefficient of 1.723. Presidential candidates had a 14% likelihood of starring in an attack ad, versus 33% for contrast ads and 63% for ads that promote the sponsoring candidate.

Incumbent presidents were least likely to make ad appearances, with an estimated 43% probability, suggesting they may be more incentivized to refrain from taking the spotlight. Presidential challengers had a 60% probability of appearing in their ads, and candidates in an open presidential race had a 54% probability.

“Incumbency confers all kinds of advantages on the candidates, and candidates win at pretty high rates,” Banda explained. “This may be another source of advantage for incumbents — that they can get away with not appearing in their ads so often because people are already pretty familiar with them.”

Presidential candidates were also 24% more likely to appear in their own ads during the primary election than the general, affirming earlier findings that candidates’ strategic calculus shifts as they appeal to a larger audience.

The result “actually makes a lot of sense,” Banda said, “because the kind of person who usually runs for president is already somewhat well known, but not necessarily to a national audience. They’ve got to introduce themselves to the voters. And if you’re just talking about yourself, you’ve got a pretty good reason to associate that message with yourself.”

Candidates across all races who stay out of the advertising spotlight themselves have been widely observed leveraging other people like campaign officials to make claims that may otherwise backfire with greater intensity.

When candidates distance themselves in this way from the messages of their campaign, it may become more difficult for their voters or constituents to consciously connect the message to the candidate, since the message is delivered via a third party.

“That might sound a little weird, because it’s their campaign, right? Surely people are going to make that connection on their own,” Banda said. “But we know from prior research that they don’t always do that.”

“If somebody says something on my behalf [to] attack my opponent, people don’t associate that with me as much as they do when I say it,” he added. “So it’s a way for candidates to maybe avoid taking the blame, or at least potentially taking the blame for saying things that are nasty, or impolite or unpopular for whatever reason. You can still get the message out there, but let somebody else say it in your stead.”

In turn, voters’ ability to hold candidates accountable for what they say during the election may be hindered. For example, one may find it difficult to connect indirect campaign promises by a candidate with their actions once in office.

“In order for elections to serve their representative function, people need to be able to make at least somewhat well-informed decisions,” Banda said. “So they should have access to information that is going to lead them to make the right choice for them. And if at least some candidates are systematically trying to duck the association between themselves and their own messages, it’s going to be harder for people to make that choice on Election Day.”

However, it remains unclear from the authors’ interpretation of the data whether candidates’ hesitation to appear in their ads is a growing trend, or how these effects have been influenced by the 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision, which allowed third-party groups to fund virtually unlimited ads on behalf of a candidate.

Future research may focus on the potential impact of one’s race or gender in their decision to make such appearances, the authors wrote.

The paper, “Candidate appearance in campaign advertisements,” was published online on Jan. 22 by Electoral Studies and will appear in the journal’s April issue. It was authored by Kevin Banda, an assistant professor of political science and interim director of the master of public administration program at Texas Tech University, and Jason Windett, an associate professor of political science and associate director of the public policy doctoral program at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

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