Digital media channels offer political parties new platforms to raise money, promote events, and educate voters about their candidates. Unfortunately, much of that space is used for negative campaigning.
SEATTLE — Something is rotten in the state of Washington. It’s political campaign season, which we all know means a fair share of negative campaigning. Yet this year catty comments and juvenile jibes seem to be flooding inboxes, political party websites, Twitter feeds, and Facebook posts. And both of our main parties are guilty.
A scan of Washington State Republican and Democratic party home pages shows that negative campaigning against opponents outweighs serious discussion of issues. And the home pages make it clear that both parties have their eye on the governor’s race.
On July 21, 2012, the Washington State Democrats home page “Featured News” section linked to three unfavorable stories about presumed Republican nominee Rob McKenna, the Washington State Attorney General. One of its five featured photos also targeted McKenna. The same day, the Washington State Republican Party home page featured a video criticizing likely Democratic nominee Jay Inslee, the former U.S. Representative, for quitting his job to run for governor, alongside an article titled “Irrelevant Facts by Jay Inslee.”
Is it possible that this campaign has become more negative than previous campaigns, even though it has barely even started?
Not according to campaign watcher Travis Ridout, associate professor of political science at Washington State University. Ridout is also co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project, which tracks broadcast advertising aired by or on behalf of federal and state election candidates.
“It’s the same old politics, but now there are just more channels for parties to share their message,” Ridout says. “It just feels like there is more of it.”
Both parties create content daily for their Facebook and Twitter pages. Ridout says because those pages are targeted to party activists, “they deliver up red meat, but it’s not a message for the masses. If the masses are seeing it, they may not be ready for this level of negativity.”
Washington State GOP tweets in mid-July were exclusively negative comments about Democratic candidates. And both parties use their Facebook pages to criticize other candidates as often as they promote their own.
Washington State Democrats have added a parody web site, RobMcKennaForGovernor, to their digital offerings. The “About Me” section reads: “In order to bolster my electoral prospects, I spend a lot of time covering my tracks so that Washington voters don’t discover that I’m not who I say I am.”
Does this kind of negative campaigning through social media — or any kind of media — sway voter opinion?
University of Georgia professor Ruthann Weaver Lariscy told CNN in January that negative ads “work very well” because they are memorable and complex. And we often forget the sponsor. “While at one time attacks were reserved largely for campaigns for national office, today they are evident in local and statewide campaigns as well,” she wrote.
Ridout says that to be effective, negative ads need to tap into into voter concerns. They also have to factor in the degree that a candidate is well known and liked.
But if content creators aren’t thinking carefully, Ridout says there is a risk of backlash.
“With traditional broadcast advertising, the messages are carefully planned,” Ridout says. “But with these new channels, many campaigns still don’t know how to use them effectively, and the creation of content is often left to an intern or a low-level staffer.”
Twitter has its own minefields, as the McKenna campaign discovered in July. The campaign fired Kathlyn Ehl, a campaign policy assistant, after news organizations picked up two offensive tweets she had made from her personal Twitter account before she joined the campaign.
Nevertheless, Ridout says the risk of backlash is small because most visitors to a political party web site or social media page already subscribe to that party’s philosophy and will be receptive to its messages, positive or negative.
On that point, I hope Professor Ridout is wrong.
Here’s a request: please provide substantive, professional, meaningful information about who will lead government, whether that information is delivered via radio, television ads ,or online social networks. There are other voters out there — Republican and Democrat and otherwise — who want this.
This post was produced in partnership with UW Election Eye 2012.