Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Going Negative for 2014?

Last month we saw something that is pretty extraordinary: A GOP candidate (Thad Chochran) beat Chris McDaniel by appealing directly to African Americans--specifically, appealing to them on the basis of a negative campaign against McDaniel. What does that mean?

A negative campaign is one where you are essentially campaigning against something--some other brand--rather than in favor of your own. Here, Graeme Newell, a customer loyalty expert, discusses the top four villains in traditional advertising (with examples):
  1. Co-workers: your co-workers are horrible and you hate your job! Time to change!--Career Builder!
  2. Wives and Girlfriends: A man is about to propose (holding a ring-box, out on a scenic pier ). His girlfriend gets his name wrong and won't get off her phone. He sees bubbles in his coffee and--hey! That's a good idea: he pitches the ring into the sea. Coffee!
  3. Bosses: They don't appreciate you. A boss asks what his employee did all weekend. His employee was working (Beer!)
  4. Doubters: Someone told Justin Bieber he'd never succeed. Wishful thinking.
For funny ad campaigns, using some 'common points of friction' can be a way to connect with your audience. In the world of state-level politics though, it's a lot more ... personal. The negative ads in this case charged that McDaniel:
  • Had KKK connections
  • Had a 'racist agenda'
  • That black Democrats could lose food stamps, housing assistance, student loans, early breakfast and lunch programs, and disaster assistance.
  • A flyer said in bold letter the Tea Party wanted to prevent blacks from voting
Did it work? Yes: it worked.

FiveThirtyEight shows that the change in votes from the original primary goes up as the black population increases by county.

What Does This Mean For 2014?

According to Princeton Election Consortium, the present state of play for the Senate balances on the knife edge:
The GOP has a .02% advantage. This means there is practically speaking a 50-50 shot of the GOP taking control of the Senate. For a year that some predicted a second 'wave election' in favor of the Republicans, this is ridiculously close (and, note, that while picking up six seats ain't nothing, it's, structurally speaking, a really, really good year for Republicans in general).

So the Omnivore's question is: does Thad Cochran's election tell us anything about black turnout for 2014? Let's not what FiveThirtyEight says of that election:
Keep in mind, though, that the pre-election polls had McDaniel ahead by around 8 points. It seems plausible that the reason they got the race wrong was because they were modeling an electorate that looked a lot more like the first round of the GOP primary instead of the runoff. That certainly makes sense given what I found. The analysis here suggests that Cochran may very well have won because he was able to get traditionally Democratic voters to cast their ballots for him.
Racial ads are "nothing new" if you look at the history--but ... erm ... what usually get called out for 'race-baiting' is nothing like what we saw in Mississippi. Here are some examples:

To be honest, none of these are anything like straight up accusations of a candidate being a Klansman or having a racist agenda. In terms of playing the race card (and dealing it, as must always be done, from the bottom of the deck) the stuff so far--from major players--is small-ball.

Oh, sure, it's annoying. Certainly there are a lot of individuals going around calling each other racist. Major figures have, at times, called certain statements racists or implied the other guy is subtly racist. Still, for prime-time advertising? The Omnivore hasn't see anything much like what happened in Mississippi.

Was, perhaps, what happened there more effective than the normal 'fire-from-a-safe-distance' kind of racial allegations that get called out? What if they were?

The Omnivore won't get into unskewing the PEC meta-margin here: the aggregate of pollsters across multiple races probably do know what they are doing and that tie-score probably does reflect the aggregate of multiple state races. On the other hand, though, the success of the Mississippi operation may well portend some pretty hair-raising negative ads as we get close to November.

Negative branding in common advertising works differently than in politics: you see Product-X (the one advertised) compared to "the leading brand" (usually). Only in a few cases (Coke vs. Pepsi) do we see a case where both brands are on the table. This is because you usually don't want to give your opposing brand air-time--even if you're claiming yours is better (this is not just about giving the competition air-time, it is also about being a perceived leader vs. a perceived runner-up).

On the other hand, in politics, we see a storm of comparative ads and, especially, often-vicious attack ads. Usually these don't, especially, move the needle--but part of the reason is that no one believes what the other side says about you. After all, they're as biased as biased can be (unlike conventional advertising, in politics there is generally one single 'buying decision'--the election--as opposed to a real brand-loyalty condition of many such decisions per year).

The Omnivore's question is this: was the black turn-out higher than (potentially) expected because the attacks were friendly fire (endorsed ... and paid for--although no one knew that then--by other Republicans)? Or were they especially motivational because they were more overt than normal? (Or some other reason? The rare option of making effective mischief?).

There's probably no way to say--The Omnivore thinks that, given the outcome in Mississippi, we may see more pointed specifically racial ads in the run-up to the 2014 election. This would not be a good thing--and if it happens, it would partially be because it is a lesson taught by Republicans.


  1. I think more open racial ads might be a good thing. Better to make the filth visible. Sunshine is the best disinfectant, after all.

    1. Keep in mind that while it's R-on-R violence, someone not-Republican may approve. When people start using the most incendiary language from official sources against targets you like (or coming from sources you like) it's easier to see how things get very, very toxic very, very quickly.

      What happened in Mississippi is going to give people armor-piercing ammunition for years to come in the political rhetoric wars: That's actually NOT a good thing for a presently divided nation.

      Now, of course, racism isn't either--on the whole this is just turning the temperature up permanently (long-term) for a very, very tactical short-term gain.

      -The Omnivore

    2. Did you perhaps mean to say "...very, very short-term tactical gain"? Because you don't often see intensifiers modifying "tactical".

      "Whoa dude, that's super tactical!"

      "Ha, I'm way more tacticaler than you!"

      Doesn't quite work.

      And you're right; partisan politics aside (if such a thing is even possible), coarsening the level of political discourse is bad for everyone, long term.

      -- Ω

    3. You know nothing, John Omega. Read gun-talk posts (That new barrel shroud is INCREDIBLY Tacti-cool) and business speak (we must operate in a ruthlessly tactical manner here)!

      Admit it: ten seconds ago you were *happier*.

      -The Omnivore

    4. No, I'll probably approve even if people I like are involved.

      If people are going to hurl racist abuse at (for example) Obama, which they are, I'd like them to do it without plausible deniability.

      And if people are going to support racist policies, which they are, I'd like to see them directly called out on it.

      And if people I like start tossing out racist BS, it'll let me know I should stop liking them. Which is good, because I want to know when someone I support is awful.

      I get that impoliteness makes politics look worse. But honest rudeness is better than false courtesy, in my opinion.

    5. Was happier years ago, back before everything sucked.

      Props on the Song of Ice and Fire phrase-drop, btw.

      -- Ω