Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Election Season

Yin-Yang symbol courtesy of

It’s about a month before the mid-term elections, and all political campaigns are in high gear. Here in Colorado, we have a contested race for a U. S. Senate seat. It features Ken Buck on the Republican side and Michael Bennet for the Democratic Party.

Negative ads are all over the airwaves. Here’s an example from the National Republican Senatorial Committee, promoting the candidacy of Mr. Buck:

In case the YouTube link is unavailable, here’s a transcript:

Sound bite from a Bennet ad: “I’ve been in Washington for only a year...”

Announcer voiceover: “And what’s Bennet done? He voted to gut Medicare, jeopardizing benefits for over 200,000 Colorado Seniors. Bennet’s scheme will raise premiums for hard-hit families. Bennet even raised taxes 525 billion dollars: a jobs killer. [He’s] gutting Medicare; Hurting Seniors; Killing Jobs.”

Sound bite from a Bennet ad: “Because I’m listening to Colorado.”

Announcer: “Oh really?”
Cynicism and scary music. That’s the ticket!

The ad feels deprecating and mean-spirited, and that is what Republicans reflexively do.

Contrast this with an ad for Michael Bennet from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee:

Mr. Buck has expressed his support for a ballot initiative in Colorado known as the “Personhood Amendment.” The idea before the voters is that an unborn child takes on legal protections prior to birth.

How is Mr. Buck’s support of this amendment characterized? Since Mr. Buck is a Republican, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is able to fathom his intent:

“Ken Buck wants to make common forms of birth control illegal… Ken Buck also wants to make a common fertility treatment illegal.” The point is punctuated with “on the street” quotes from concerned women:

--“This is ridiculous!”

--“I can’t believe that in 2010 Ken Buck wants to limit women’s access to birth control.”

--“This is reaching so far into people’s private lives.”

--“Who is he to make that choice?”

--“Ken Buck does not belong in my family planning.”

--“Women’s rights should not be taken backwards.”
The clear theme is that no woman in her right mind would vote for this person.

Why is it effective? It’s because of the use of characterization.

The individuals in the video tell us who Ken Buck is. They characterize him as a person who has no respect for privacy or personal dignity and who objectifies women. The announcer lets us know Mr. Buck’s intent: Ken Buck wants to make sure the actions of women are illegal.

It’s an important difference in our political culture. Republicans talk about issues. They tell you what a candidate did or is proposing to do. Democrats, on the other hand, highlight their perception of a candidate’s intent and tell us what we must believe about that candidate.

Republicans are fighting with “one hand tied behind their backs.” They (tragically) restrict themselves to “the issues.” Democrats are free to make accusations and characterizations that are directed at the emotional state of the target audience. Republicans are caught up in policy; Democrats “go for the gut!”

That’s why it is fun to see candidates like Tom Tancredo run for office. Mr. Tancredo is an iconoclast, breaking the established campaign rules of the Republican Party.

Mr. Tancredo may not win the election for Governor of Colorado, but he makes certain we enjoy the ride.

UPDATE 10/5/2010:
Left Coast Rebel has a post by RightKlik profiling an interesting development in this "negative ad" season.  It features an ad by Christine O'Donnell produced by Strategic Perception, Inc.  Is it possible that Republicans are becoming interested in the emotional component that drives voters?

UPDATE 10/15/2010:
Maybe Republicans are starting to "get it."  Here's a recent ad by Ken Buck.

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