Tim Kaine would like Virginians to think he is a fiscally conservative candidate who knows how to work across the aisle. George Allen has branded himself as a politician who engages with his constituents and wants the best for them.
The ads are the product of more than $36 million being spent in the Virginia Senate race by independent expenditure groups,which include super PACs,501(c)(4) nonprofits and political committees spending money to support or oppose a candidate.
But mostly oppose.
Kaine,a Democrat,and Allen,a Republican,are vying for the Senate seat being vacated by Sen. Jim Webb,a Democrat. Kaine and Allen are both former Virginia governors. Webb unseated Allen from the Senate seat six years ago.
As of Thursday,only 10 percent of money spent by outside groups in the Virginia Senate race was to support a candidate. Overall,$32.4 million was spent to oppose either Kaine or Allen,and $3.7 million was spent to support one of them. Almost all spending comes from nonprofit organizations such as Crossroad for American GPS,political groups such as the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and Super PACs such as Majority PAC.
The independent expenditures are spent on a variety of uses – such as rental cars,bus tours and meals – but the main one is media buys such as advertisements or emails. As of the end of September,Allen spent about $3.4 million of his own campaign money on media buys and Kaine spent about $7.7 million.
Nationally,independent expenditures have amounted to hundreds of millions of dollars. As of Thursday,no Senate race is more expensive than Virginia’s,according to the data filed with the Federal Election Commission.
The independent expenditures come from individuals,corporations,labors unions or political committees that spend money to support or oppose a candidate. These expenditures are unique because when they are reported to the FEC the donor must say whether the money was spent for or against a candidate. Other spending does not have to be classified.
Neither campaign nor the two biggest donors – the conservative Crossroads GPS and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee – responded to multiple requests for an interview. Majority PAC,the third biggest donor,said it has a policy of not commenting on campaign strategy.
Negativity in campaigns is nothing new.
John G. Geer,a professor of political science at Vanderbilt University,has tracked every political presidential ad since the 1960s. Negative ads were around then – an ad for Lyndon Johnson implied Barry Goldwater’s foreign policy would lead to little girls being nuked,and George H.W. Bush pinned Michael Dukakis for allowing convicted murders to have weekend passes,which lead to additional crimes.
But in the 1960s,the percentage of negative ads was below 10 percent. In 2008,more than 60 percent of ads were negative. And because the parties are polarized,the candidates flawed and a “heck of a lot of money” in the system,Geer predicts that 70 percent to 80 percent of ads this election cycle will be negative.
Negative ads can be dangerous because of potential backlash,Geer said. But his colleague at Vanderbilt,political science professor Marc J. Hetherington,said they’re not likely to go away soon.
“People think they’re going to get sick,throw up their hands and say,‘a pox on both your houses,’ but that’s not going to happen,” Hetherington said,noting that the increase of negativity in elections has not stopped voter turnout from rising since 1996.
Instead,negative information is more likely to unite a base and fire up supporters,Richard E. Petty,a professor of psychology at Ohio State University,said. Research shows that if a person votes against a candidate rather than for one,the voter will be more certain of his or her response.
“If you think of yourself as opposed to something,you become more certain of your view and you’re more likely to act on it,” Petty said. “You’re more likely to vote to contribute to the campaigns because they have to stop something and that’s just more motivating.”
The debate about how independent voters are affected by negative advertising is unresolved,Hetherington said. But campaigns are clear about the uniting power of the negative and are using it to make sure those who do support them have enough motivation to go to the ballot box.
“It’s easier to make people vote against something than for something,” Hetherington said. “Campaigns these days are much more about motivating their base of support and making sure they come out to vote.”
Kaine’s and Allen’s campaigns are working to solidify their bases with less than two weeks left in the campaign.
In the first quarter of the year,spending by independent expenditure committees to support a candidate was more than twice that of spending to oppose a candidate. This month,for every dollar outside groups spent to support Allen,other outside groups spent $7.44 against him. For Kaine,the ratio of negative to positive spending is $15.62 to $1.
Another key to negative spending is the power of negative information. Even if people don’t like attack ads,the facts themselves can be resilient,Petty said.
“If I tell you I’m going to introduce you to a neighbor and I tell you three positive things – that’s all fine and good ‑ but that’s what you expected,” Petty said. “A negative thing jumps out at you and carries more weight than it should. It’s more diagnostic.”
But if negative ads continue at this volume,this intuitive assumption could flip. When viewers see a political ad,they might automatically assume it will be negative. Therefore,a positive ad would be seen as more discerning.
“We haven’t yet gotten to that point in campaigns yet,” Petty said. “But this might be the year it trips because there’s so much of it.”
Reach reporter Emily Wilkins at [email protected] or 202-326-9867. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire.