way and voting another?’ The simple truth is that voters have more sense than pundits in distinguishing between fair and unfair attacks. Not only do voters make respectable judgments about which attacks are fair, but they pay more attention to the negative attacks than to the positive message. In 1997, Bruce Pinkerton found numerous studies about non-political advertising showing that consumers give more weight to negative information about a choice than they do to positive information. The reason for this, Pinkerton found, is simply that negative information is easier to remember. Quick question: What was Bill Clinton’s greatest policy achievement? While you think about that, tell me why the House impeached him, the name of the woman who performed the act, what room they usually used, and what tobacco product played a role. Suddenly, that budget surplus doesn’t seem to come to the fore as easily. Pinkerton says we remember the negative more than the positive because it’s more, ahem, “emotionally arousing?’ and that it is the voter’s ability to access the memory of the advertising that drives their voting behavior. If you’re willing to let go of the notion that campaigns use negative attacks to suppress the vote, then the inescapable conclusion is that voters seek out credible negative attacks to make their decisions, are engaged by them, and go to the polls because of them. That’s exactly what the two fellows from the University of Virginia found. Their study discovered that voters were more likely to vote when exposed to increasingly fair attacks. Now who’s ruining our democracy? What we really need to know is whether the negative attacks work only to increase voting by the respective base votes. Negative attacks would still be harmful to democracy if they suppressed independent swing voters at the expense of the participation of partisans. Studies in fact have reached the opposite conclusion. Hard-core partisans are immune to negative communications, while the swing voters, the holy grail of close elections, are the ones most affected by negativity in campaigns. Everyone agrees that unfair, scurrilous mudslinging turns the swing voters off and makes them skip elections. But relevant and fair attacks, if done correctly, mobilize these folks. I learned about the link between negative campaigning and higher turnout when Dan Boren hired me to help his campaign for Oklahoma’s 2nd Congressional district in 2004. Voting in the Democratic primaries in Oklahoma’s 2nd Congressional district had held pretty steady in the previous two non-presidential years: 1996 \(83,665 2000 We’re not talking about a giant groundswell of enthusiasm here, just the diehard Democrats who vote more reliably than they go to church on Sundays. Turnout was stable as long as the candidates kept it generally positive and the attacks very restrained. The seat had come open again in 2004, and there was a young man with the last name of Boren thinking about getting in the race, and that’s like being a Bush in Texas or a Kennedy in Massachusetts. In 2004, Dan Boren was a 30-year-old, firstterm state representative who headed up a college foundation, but that last name meant something to Democratic voters who had sent his granddaddy to Congress under FDR and his dad to the Senate and to the governor’s mansion after that. So as it turned out, my choice came down to the Boren juggernaut and a Native American former district attorney named Kalyn Free. I chose to work for Boren. The Free-Boren race started as a fight for the Democratic primary and became ground zero in the culture wars. She started the hoopla with an ad hitting his votes on gas tax hikes. We answered with a spot attacking her for making an “unfair personal attack” because she wanted to cover up a “history of letting rapists and child molesters go free which our research showed that she had done as a district attorney. She then put the mother of the rape victim in a television commercial, which rocked us on our heels. We got back on track with a response about how she had given suspended sentences to a lot of sex criminals and how a judge had yelled at her from the bench for screwing up a death penalty case, accusing her of “incompetence in the first degree?’ So she tried to change the subject with a commercial accusing Dan of voting to cut funding for in-home health care into nursing homes. And then the race really got nasty. We put up an ad asking, “Do you want a congressman who supports gun control, abortion on demand, and partial-birth abortion? Kalyn Free does.” And on the Sunday before the primary, some Boren field staffers leafleted church parking lots with her position in favor of gay marriage, not that there’s anything wrong with that. Amid all the brouhaha, the race might have been negative, but it wasn’t personal. Both sides tried to render the other’s flesh into Dog Chow, but we used as weapons. With a week remaining, both candidates had embraced negative attacks with suffocating bear hugs. Voters had to sit through one nasty ad after another just to make it to the local news broadcasts that showed how the candidates tore into each other at debates and forums. If there ever were a case to prove that negative campaigns suppressed voter turnout, this would have to be it. Amid the salvos over the airwaves, a young man named Ben Joy was working for the Dan Boren campaign as a field grunt accompanying Boren on campaign swings throughout the district. They’d drive around in a beat-up RV to parades, where it was Joy’s job to walk a little in front of Boren along a parade route, handing out campaign literature, so that voters might have an inkling of why a young man was smiling and sticking his hand out to be shaken at a parade. Shaking hands with strangers poses risks for a candidate running a negative television campaign. Little old ladies are liable to whack you with their canes while they shriek about how much they hate negative campaigning. But Joy found that not only was the continued on page 19 FEBRUARY 24, 2006 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 13
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