Prof: Political TV ads can mobilize, demobilize voters


Ace Newman watches television and is on social media for about 12 hours each day.

“I see about eight or nine ads in each half-hour period,” the Jasper man said. “Seventy-five percent of the ads are negative.”

That does have an effect on him.

“When I see a negative ad, it makes me feel sad inside and tired of hearing them at the same time,” he said. “I think why don’t they stop digging up negative dirt on each other and tell us about them and what good they would do?”

As the political season is in its final week, so is the season of political advertisements. The bombardment of ads on television and social media has many people looking forward to Wednesday, Nov. 7, the day after the General Election.

“With the election approaching fast all I see are negative ads and it discourages me,” said Valerie Roach of Jasper. “Never in my voting life have I not voted. Yet I know there are people out there who won’t based on all the negativity being promoted.”

It’s disheartening for her to see.

“It’s sad that society these days seems to me not to care to vote or help make things better,” she said. “They then get mad at who is elected when they had a chance to get someone in.”

The effect of political ads, especially negative ads, can mobilize or demobilize voters, said Marjorie Hershey, a political science professor at Indiana University-Bloomington. Either way, they will definitely bring about an emotional reaction, she said.

“It tends to be mobilizing among people who have already made up their minds as to who to vote for, and are reasonably intense in their support for those candidates,” Hershey said. “When people who have not yet made up their minds see an onslaught of negative ads, they are more likely to stay home from the polls. It tends to discourage them.”

So the timing of the advertisements is important. “The closer to election day you get, the fewer people who have not made up their minds. So the advertising is probably less effective right at the time of Election Day.”

Most campaigners know that, she said, which is why ads tend to appear early on in an election season.

Jonathan Hasenour Sr. of Jasper said he considers the negative ads to be smear campaigns. He guesses that he sees about four ads in a 30-minute timeframe. “And most of what I see on social media is propaganda and falsehoods,” he said.

He wishes the ads would instead talk more about the candidates’ attributes.

“If I could speak to any of them, I would tell them to make ads that convince me to vote for them without smearing the opponent. Give me facts that are not only accessible but can be easily proven,” Hasenour said. “I would rather hear why a candidate supports a topic, with facts that can be accessible and proven.”

Sarah Byrne of Ireland said the political advertisements have directly impacted her voting choices.

“I absolutely will vote, and mudslinging ads will pretty much guarantee a candidate's loss of my vote,” she said. “I see it as a predictor as to how they will handle all problems in office, and will resort to finger pointing, and evasion. No answers there.”

“If I spoke to the people making the ads,” said voter Heidi Ehrhard, “I would say stop manipulating the details to create these extreme emotions and agendas. What happened to civility and moderation? If the politicians truly want what is best for the country, I think they need to stop thinking about their political party, and think about America as a whole.”

National races, like presidential and congressional races, tend to generate more advertisement, as well as more funding from different organizations, like PACs (political action committees). State and local races in Indiana tend to not generate this level of advertising, Hershey said.

Since 1994 the two main political parties, Democrat and Republican, have swapped back and forth in having control of the U.S. House and Senate, which Hershey said motivates the parties in the battle for congressional seats.

“Once you get a race that has been targeted as winnable by either side, the stakes start to get much higher,” she said. “Both parties have a real stake in trying to win a majority in every single congressional year. And when that happens, the money starts to come in. And it especially comes in from outside sources.”

These outside groups are the ones more likely to run negative ads than the candidates themselves, Hershey said.

“If you’re running for office and your name is on the ballot, you don’t want people to get the impression that you’re just an attacker,” she said. “But the outside groups, their name isn’t on the ballot. They don’t have to worry about getting a reputation as highly negative, because they’re just going to come in with their money and leave again.”

Melody Saylor of Ferdinand, said that seeing the negative ads on TV and in her social media feeds is annoying.

“I get irritated,” she said. “I feel like, as I’m watching, instead of telling me why I should vote for that person, they tell me why I shouldn’t vote for the other one. I think, ‘They are saying don’t vote for X; X did this wrong. X did that wrong; X is not who you want!’ Then, when a person goes to vote, the only name that is remembered is X. I feel that’s very counterproductive.”

The ads did not help her in deciding who to vote for. “I’m not convinced that anyone is truthful,” she said. “As it has been said, truth is somewhere between the opinions.”

So she did her own sleuthing before casting her ballot.

“I did do my own research,” she said. “I talked with my husband and we shared our thoughts. I prayed.”

Adrian Engelberth of Jasper also looks into a candidate’s background and decides for himself.

“I make sure to talk to as many of the candidates I can,” he said. “I also talk to other people about them to get an idea of how they will act. I do my own research and seek out others.”

So how can voters reduce their emotional responses to negative political advertising?

“We can use the mute button very freely,” Hershey said. “If people are looking for information, don’t get it from TV or online. Print sources are less likely to trigger emotional reaction, and they are likely to provide the level of detail that people need to know about these people’s records over time.

“Just watch the programs, mute the commercials and pick up your newspaper to read what the candidates stand for.”

Engelberth questions if the negative advertising will be good for the candidate in the long run.

“I know why you do the ads. I get why they work,” he said, adding that “the negative ads are slowly destroying the trust in you. Even kids run around at school quoting these ads. Is that what you want to be remembered for? The candidate who gets elected by having the best negative ad?”

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