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Maybe Mitt Romney should stop the attack ads, period

April 09, 2012|By Jon Healey
  • GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum is shown in a 2011 photo holding his daughter Isabella, who was hospitalized over the weekend. The 3-year-old has Trisomy 18, a rare genetic disorder.
GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum is shown in a 2011 photo holding… (Gene J. Puskar / Associated…)

With Rick Santorum staying off the campaign trail for another day to be with his hospitalized toddler, front-runner Mitt Romney has suspended  the barrage of negative campaign ads he’s been airing. That seems like a humane move, and he seems like the sort of guy who’d do it for that reason alone. But it may not be the only reason for Romney to call back the hounds.

Studies have shown that attack ads tend to reduce public esteem for the target. What’s not so clear, however, is whether they inflict more damage on the candidate who uses them. Two groups of researchers led by Richard R. Lau, a political science professor at Rutgers University, found in 1998 and 2007 that there was no persuasive evidence that attack ads helped a campaign more than they hurt the candidate who sponsored them.

The potential for backlash seemed especially pronounced for Romney on Monday, Lau said, because the public could view any attack on Santorum as unfair or in poor taste while the candidate is tending to his daughter.

The effectiveness of negative advertising varies by campaign, but political scientists say there are some clear patterns.  Such ads make their greatest impact early in the campaign, when people are still getting to know the candidates. Once they like someone, it’s hard to move them off that favorable opinion. Professor John Sides at George Washington University outlined what I’d call the “La la la la la I can’t hear you” effect to NPR’s Shankar Vedantam:

When voters are confronted with inconvenient facts, it's oftentimes difficult to persuade them that those facts are in fact facts. When supporters of President Obama see negative information about Obama, they don't think that it's true; to the extent that it seems true, they find ways to explain it or rationalize it. They discount it.

On the other hand, Sides told me that this phenomenon is more likely to be seen in a general election than in a primary. Granted, Santorum should be quite familiar to voters in Pennsylvania by now, considering the 16 years he spent representing all or part of the state in Congress. But Sides cautioned, “Don’t ever overestimate voters’ memories.”

A recent poll by Quinnipiac University suggested that the race remains fluid in Pennsylvania despite Santorum’s repeated assertions that voters there know him. Although only 6% of the likely voters surveyed said they were undecided, 37% said they may still change their mind about whom to support.

Nevertheless, Romney may not need to spend all $2.9 million he’d planned to spend on advertising in Pennsylvania. If he’s on a glidepath to wrapping up the nomination before the national convention in August, Sides said, would running more ads against Santorum make any real difference?

“From a strategic perspective, I think there’s a question about how much bang for the buck is there in a lot of additional spending on advertising for Romney,” Sides said. The margin of victory in the primary may not effect how well Romney does in November against President Obama. And considering how well funded Obama is expected to be, Romney might be better off saving his ammunition -- and dollars -- for the fall campaign.

Romney also can rest assured in the knowledge that the "super PAC" supporting him, Restore Our Future, has already spent heavily in Pennsylvania and almost certainly will continue to do so. An intriguing new study by Deborah Jordan Brooks at Dartmouth College finds that attacks from independent groups are more effective than those from the candidates themselves, mainly because the independent source shields the candidate from backlash.

Romney called only a temporary halt to the attack ads, so it’s safe to expect that his electronic assault on Santorum will continue. (Romney has been particularly critical of Santorum’s support for earmarks and raising the debt ceiling.) Lau of Rutgers said his former student Ivy Brown Rovner, an erstwhile political consultant, offered this explanation for why such ads just keep coming: Consultants get paid every time they make a new ad. And while there aren’t many different positive messages one can create, there are endless variations on negative themes.

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COMMENTARY AND ANALYSIS: Presidential Election 2012

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