Statewide campaigns are going negative in recent ads

By MAXWELL EVANS
Capital News Service

LANSING — Although the first half of an advertisement from John James’s U.S. Senate campaign is spent questioning an opponent’s policy decisions and toughness, the campaign doesn’t want it to be seen as an attack on fellow Republican Sandy Pensler.

“We don’t look at it as a negative ad,” said Ted Goodman, communication director for James, a Farmington Hills businessman. “We’re very proud to have ads that focus on John James and how he is different from the other candidates that are running.”

In the digital ad, the campaign responds to Grosse Pointe businessman Pensler’s “Detroit Tough” advertisement, which aired on Super Bowl Sunday.

James’s 30-second spot opens by suggesting Pensler hires consultants “to tell [him] the right political positions” and questioning Pensler’s toughness. About halfway through, the ad shifts, highlighting James’ status as an Iraq combat veteran and self-described “conservative outsider.”

Attorney General and gubernatorial candidate Bill Schuette’s campaign funded a Super Bowl Sunday ad of its own, calling out Republican primary challenger and Lt. Gov. Brian Calley’s legislative history under former Gov. Jennifer Granholm.

Attack ad or not, the decision to go on the offensive in an attempt to highlight a candidate’s uniqueness is commonplace in modern politics.

It is rarer for campaigns to take ownership of ads that go after opponents, as James’s and Schuette’s do.

Only about one in four ads that solely attacked another candidate or included negative content were funded by a candidate’s committee instead of a third party during the 2016 elections, according to data provided by the Political TV Ad Archive.

Letting outside organizations do the dirty work can insulate the candidate if the public doesn’t respond well to an attack or if the claims are questionable, according to J. Cherie Strachan, a political science professor at Central Michigan University.

“You don’t even necessarily have knowledge of the ad or how it’s being put together,” Strachan said. “It prevents the backlash.”

Strachan also said that the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling in 2010, which allowed corporations to spend an unlimited amount on political advertising, shifted campaign financing from being largely under candidates’ control to outside groups, like super PACs — political action committees — and nonprofit organizations.

“We have so much leeway for independent actors in the way we have structured campaigns,” Strachan said. “Maybe it’s not a good strategy for the candidate, but somebody that’s really angry — some group or organization that’s raised money — really wants to throw stones, they have free speech.”

Those outside groups can use that freedom of speech to say “negative things that aren’t a part of the official campaign strategy,” she said.

Ads sponsored by outside groups tend to be negative, while ads run by candidates’ campaigns tend to be positive, said Craig Mauger, the executive director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network. The network is a nonpartisan organization focused on the impact of money on Michigan politics.

“With this flourishing amount of outside money coming in, a lot of that’s going to fund negative ads,” Mauger said. “That’s why you see so many negative ads right now.”

Independently funded attack ads can be useful for a candidate, Mauger said. Not only can the candidate be shielded from blame, but he said attacks tend to be more successful in affecting public perception than positive content.

“They tend to work — people often remember negative ads and they may be more effective than your normal, positive ad,” Mauger said. “If it’s an outside or independent group making the claim, it’s harder for the public to tie those attacks to the candidate.

“Also, if there are claims being made that are false or fuzzy or inaccurate, it’s harder to hold someone accountable because it’s an independent group that might be hard to pin down who’s actually behind it.”

Strachan said the public generally expects attack ads to be a part of the political process, minimizing the risk politicians take when going on the offensive. She added that, especially with an increasingly polarized political climate, candidates are willing to “cross the line” more often and go for personal attacks or name-calling.

“Historically, Americans have accepted that politicians are on different sides and have different opinions, ideologies and approaches,” Strachan said. “There’s a certain element of negativity that’s sort of inherent in hashing these things out.”

In 2013, Secretary of State Ruth Johnson proposed heightened disclosure rules for negative advertising. Taking issue with the impact of “dark money” — funding from anonymous donors — Johnson sought to end the exemption of “issue ads” from the state’s campaign finance rules.

Issue ads are allowed to support or attack a politician or cause anonymously, but cannot explicitly call for viewers to “vote for” or “elect” a certain ballot option.

On the same day Johnson announced that proposal, the Senate approved a bill by Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive, to exclude advertising from campaign finance reporting “if the communication does not support or oppose a ballot question or candidate by name.”

A month later, the bill was signed by Gov. Rick Snyder, formalizing the ability of people or companies to fund unlimited political issue ads without public scrutiny.