Despite Upturn In Tone, Shaheen, Brown Race Remains "One Of The Most Negative" In The Country

Oct 30, 2014

Ads for and against Scott Brown and Jeanne Shaheen
Credit via YouTube

Normally watching TV means checking out a show with an occasional break or two for commercials. Watching TV these days feels more like watching large numbers of political ads with the occasional program thrown in.

And it looks like there will be many more to come.

Dave Levinthal is Senior Political Reporter for the Center For Public Integrity. He joined All Things Considered for another look at campaign ads and who’s paying for them.

In many of the states you’re tracking this year, there’s been a slow but steady increase in ads and ad spending – but always an upward trend. In New Hampshire, there was more of a big jump for a couple weeks and then a slight drop over the last reporting period. What might account for such a drop?

We saw a peak in pretty much the middle of October in New Hampshire, and you're right - the nationwide trend is just going up and up and up. Ever since Labor Day there has been more ads week over week for all eight weeks, going all the way to this past week.

New Hampshire did dip a little bit this past week - there were still 2,700 US Senate race-focused ads that were aired in the New Hampshire market - again, just focused on the Senate race alone, to say nothing about the gubernatorial race, or any other contest going on. That's a heck of a lot, but it had cracked the 3,000 mark in the previous week.

What's causing that? Well, the polls are definitely showing that this is a close race, but maybe not the closest in the nation. And we're in crunch time now - the parties, the super PACs and nonprofit groups, which are largely fueling many of these ad barrages that are taking place in key Senate races, they want to put their money where they feel they have the best chance. And New Hampshire, while still high on the list, may not be at the top of the list right now.

Last time we talked the tone of the ads in this race was overwhelmingly negative; more than 9 out of 10 ads had some form of attack in them. I believe the phrase you used was “snake pit.” Have we seen any change in the tone of the more recent ads?

Compared to what it was a couple of weeks ago, things are downright sunny - a whole 11 percent of the US Senate race ads in New Hampshire had a positive message in them. The rest at least had some sort of negative content.

Of course, [I'm] being facetious here a little bit. This is one of the most negative races in the entire United States, among any Senate race being run. It's been that way for a while, and will probably stay that way all the way up.

And also, too, the number of ads - the Democrats and their allies were able to produce and air more television ads this past week than Scott Brown and his Republican allies.

An outside group is often playing ads in a number of different states. How likely are they to tailor an ad for New Hampshire's US Senate race and its unique dynamics, compared to simply using the same line of attack in multiple states and swapping out one candidate's name for another?

We've seen some examples that look quite similar, usually based on a certain issue, but they may have different candidates featured in them, but the tone and the feel and the message is very much the same.

That being said, many of the large super PACs, many of the large nonprofit organizations that are big time players in the messaging game that's taking place during the Senate race will get very finely tuned to the issues of a particular Senate race. They have the resources, they have the professionalism, they have the people to do it, and operate in three, five, ten, even a dozen different Senate races, to say nothing of House races. And that just shows, really, how big and how professionalized many of these groups have become. They can go into multiple contests in close battleground states and have a finely tuned, finely honed message for the candidates and the people who are voting in those elections, to try to reach them as much as possible.

The trend in NH Senate race ads in the Senate race between Labor Day and October 27.
Credit Courtesy the Center for Public Integrity


There's a certain irony here, because media watchers and television producers have often talked in recent years about the difficulty they have in finding and keeping audiences. And yet campaign ad spending continues to go up - so somebody believes there’s still a return on these kinds of investments.

People still watch television. Even though they may have dipped a little bit, still television is the primary way - this could change in a few years - but still right now, the primary way most people are getting their political messages. It's not the only way - digital ads, for example, has been a growth industry - Facebook and Twitter and this website and that website. So much more spending in that regard than there was even a few years ago. But TV is still king, and don't expect that to change really anytime soon. I would imagine that 2016 will be a lot of the same relative to 2014.

When Scott Brown first entered this race, there was talk that he and Jeanne Shaheen might take the so-called “People’s Pledge,” like in the Massachusetts Senate race in 2012. The idea there was to curb outside spending. That didn’t happen here, and given how many ads we've seen, and the tone of those ads, I wonder how this race might have been different had that pledge been a part of this campaign.

It would have been wildly different. When Scott Brown ran against Elizabeth Warren for the Senate in Massachusetts, it was a very different type of campaign compared to many of the US Senate campaigns being run immediately before or immediately after. It was much more about the two candidates going at each other, as opposed to all these outside influences playing in the state.

Some people would argue there's nothing wrong with outside influences trying to come into a local race. It should be their right, they have the freedom of speech, they have the First Amendment on their side. The other school of thought is that this is a lot of noise, and the candidates themselves are effectively being rendered secondary players in their own race. We've seen numerous examples of Senate races - New Hampshire is not one of them, but there are other big states that are - where you add up all the ads that have been produced by outside organizations, political parties, non-candidate groups, there are a lot more than the ads the candidates have produced. 

Yeah, if the People's Pledge had been signed in New Hampshire, for better or for worse, it likely would have been a very different race in terms of tone and tenor.

Nationwide, we're getting close to the one million ad mark, and we're likely to pass that before Election Day?

We're reporting today and predicting that we will see about, if not more, one million ads - cue Dr. Evil from "Austin Powers" fame - in all US Senate races this year, which is an unprecedented amount.

And we all know it's going to end on Election Day, but - not to be too doomy and gloomy here - it's going to start up again soon, especially if you live in a state like New Hampshire, where you have the first in the nation primary.

One election ends and the next begins.

New Hampshire, Iowa, South Carolina, Nevada, some of the early states, you'll get a reprieve for a few months, but it's all going to start up again very soon.