Mudslinging at Rival Candidates Works — If You Do It Yourself

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Why you should care

Because in order to win the Senate, candidates might need to do their own dirty work. 

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The attack ad was littered with scare text, ominous music and Trumpian nickname-slinging that culminated with a final phrase: “Chemtrail Kelli Ward: Not Conservative. Just Crazy Ideas.”

But it wasn’t the Republican woman’s enemies on the left who had ordered the $10,000 airwave hit last August. No, this was a case of intra-party fratricide, commissioned by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s Senate Leadership Fund. The goal? To kneecap the anti-establishment Senate candidate before her campaign could truly start gaining steam in the summer heat of Arizona.

Although Ward trails in the polls once more, she led an OH Predictive Insights–ABC15 Arizona poll by 9 percentage points as recently as April, and remains a serious contender as the Republican primary approaches on August 28. Why did the attack ads fall flat? Recent research suggests maybe McConnell should have left the heavy hitting to the candidates themselves.

Negative ads sponsored by outside groups have much less impact than those created by candidates’ in-house.

Such was the finding in a study published in the June edition of INFORMS journal Marketing Science, co-authored by Yanwen Wang of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Michael Lewis of Emory University in Atlanta and David A. Schweidel of Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. By comparing similar marketing districts across the 2010 and 2012 U.S. senatorial races, researchers found that negative advertising was effective in influencing voters — but significantly more so when the attacking candidates themselves ran the ads.

Devastating negative attacks are nothing new, including missives launched by the candidates themselves and outsiders, from Lyndon B. Johnson’s “Daisy” ad and George W. Bush’s “Windsurfing” John Kerry to Priorities USA Action’s “Stage” ad against Mitt Romney. The findings are surprising though, considering candidates are often told to avoid campaign mudslinging. “That’s the conventional wisdom: Let the outside guys do the dirty work, and keep your hands clean,” says Lewis, an Emory University marketing professor.

However, brand equity is important, as the study showed: If an attack ad is going to stick, viewers have to trust the source behind it. Shadow organizations with bubblegum names like “Freedom, Justice and the American Way,” as Lewis puts it, often raise eyebrows from potential voters. “I understand how you don’t want to be negative, because it may affect your brand in the long term,” Lewis says. “But in the short term of winning an election, it seems to be the right strategy.”

It’s because I didn’t kiss the ring. I didn’t know there was a ring to kiss in this country.

Republican candidate Kelli Ward on attack ads by fellow Republicans

Plenty has changed since Ward got flamed last summer, with Republican incumbent Jeff Flake saying he wouldn’t run for reelection and Sheriff Joe Arpaio and Congresswoman Martha McSally entering the race. Fact-checkers, including PolitiFact and The Washington Post, derided the hit piece on Ward as “misleading” and “mostly false,” ruling that it was unfair to say she believed a conspiracy theory simply because her constituents raised it during a town hall meeting.

Still, the trend of outside groups jumping in to bash Ward has continued. As recently as June, the Virginia-based nonprofit One Nation purchased $500,000 in ads across Arizona to prop up her opponent, McSally.

And yet the revelation of the past year is that such efforts have done little, if anything, to influence the race. Even political strategist Chad Campbell, a former state representative who supports Democrat Kyrsten Sinema in the Senate race, agrees the attacks have had a negligible effect so far.

When asked about the ads, Ward calls them “smears,” saying “it’s because I didn’t kiss the ring,” before adding: “I didn’t know there was a ring to kiss in this country.”

After the election of Donald Trump, perhaps some voters may want a brawler who’s willing to call a spade a spade rather than utter softer critiques. With other contentious Senate races raging from Missouri to North Dakota and even neighboring Nevada, campaigns nationwide may want to look at Arizona to understand the changing calculus behind going on the offensive.

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