Radio Iowa News Director O.Kay Henderson begins her “Campaign Countdown” series today, a review of the candidates, the issues and the hype of the 2004 campaign in Iowa. According to the Campaign Media Analysis Group, there are just six other states which have a greater deluge of campaign advertising from the candidates — and the groups that support them. In the first week of October alone, just over one-and-a-half million dollars was spent buying time on Iowa radio and television stations for presidential campaign ads, the majority of it on tv. Iowa State University political science professor Dianne Bystrom has been analyzing campaign ads for several years. “I actually think they have an important role to play in the political campaign,” Bystrom says. “They’re still probably the most used source of political information when voters make a choice about who they’re going to vote for, especially at the presidential level.” Bystrom says one of the biggest differences between the campaign ads of 2000 and this year’s air battle is that Bush is making greater use of negative ads.
Bystom says since 1988, about two-thirds of the campaigns ads run by a candidate have been negative, and about a third positive. In 2000, Bystom says Bush flipped that proportion around and about two-thirds of his ads were positive. Not so this time, according to Bystrom, who did a spot check two weeks ago. “The ads at least running nationwide looked like Bush was about two-thirds negative where Kerry was more positive, but I think in the closing days of the campaign I think we’ll see overall the candidates will have about a two-thirds negative/one-third positive ad campaign.” Some argue campaign ads are becoming less effective because people use their remote to flip to another channel when the ads come on, they use new technological gadgets to skip the commercials or they just tune out the messages, but Bystom doesn’t buy it.
Bystom says people who respond to polls say they get their political information from newspapers and broadcast outlets, yet when researchers delve deeper, they find campaign ads are the primary source of campaign information for voters. Negative ads were at the forefront of the campaign in August, with a group critical of John Kerry seizing air time inside newscasts and newspapers with the message from their ads. And the new groups which have sprung up after the campaign finance reform law have seized attention with strikingly negative ads. Bystrom says negative ads reinforce already-held views about a candidate, plant a new nuggett of negativity or spur greater allegiance to a candidate.
“There has been no research that has shown that negative advertising suppresses voter turn-out,” Bystom says. “In fact, on a case-by-case election level, there’s actually some elections where negative ads actually spurred and increased the turn-out rather than depressed it.” According to Bystrom, research shows the campaign ads people remember the most aren’t the warm, fuzzy, positive ads, but the downright nasty ones. “Especially the ones known as fear appeals, and there’s a couple of those running now where they really not only are negative but they want you to be afraid of having the other person elected,” Bystom says. “Those are particularly effective, especially with undecided voters.” Bystom is part of a team of political scientists who are running experiments throughout the country, guaging voters’ reaction to this year’s crop of campaign advertising. The group will publish a book after the election, just as they did after analyzing the communication strategies of the 1996 and 2000 presidential campaigns.