Democrats have attacked their opponents personally twice as often as Republicans have done in campaign ads this year. In an effort to draw public attention away from their failed policies, Democratic candidates have emphasized personal issues over policy differences in their attack ads, according to a nonpartisan study.
“The use of personal attacks actually makes sense for the Democrats this year. The issue environment does not favor them, in that many Obama policies are unpopular, so many Democrats are choosing to point out the personal foibles of their opponents,” concluded Michael Franz, co-director of The Wesleyan Project and an associate professor at Bowdoin College.
The non-partisan, grant-funded Wesleyan Media Project analyzed 900,000 campaign ads aired from January 1 to October 5, 2010 by candidates for House, Senate and Governor. Overall for both political parties, 32% of ads this year were negative, 49% positive, and 18% contrast the two candidates without using attack language.
The study showed that Democrats and Republicans aired the same proportions of negative ads (37% for Democrats, 36% for Republicans), positive ads (42% for Democrats, 44% for Republicans) and contrast ads (21% for Democrats, 20% for Republicans).
The Wesleyan research, however, shows a marked difference in the type of negative ads that the parties have aired. The Democrats personally attack their opponents twice as often as the Republicans do. Democrats attacked their opponents on a personal level in 22% of all their negative ads; in the Republicans’ negative ads, only 11% engaged personal attacks.
“What we’ve seen with an escalation of these personal attacks by Democratic candidates of the opponents in a de-emphasizing of policy issues and an elevation of personal attributes as a point of contention,” said David Pesci, the spokesman for the Wesleyan Media Project.
The study also showed that the Republicans focus attacks on policy issues significantly more than the Democrats do. The Republicans’ negative ads are 69% about their opponents’ policies, whereas only 47% of the Democrats’ negative ads pertain directly to issues.
The Democrats’ most egregious personal attack ads this year have backfired, alienating the voters. In Florida, Democrat Alan Grayson aired an attack ad against Republican Daniel Webster in their congressional race, an ad so defamatory that it changed the whole course of the campaign. Grayson’s ad referred to Webster as “Taliban Dan,” took Webster’s words out of context, and grossly remixed recorded material to make him sound like an Islamic fundamentalist “in Afghanistan and Iran.”
In the Kentucky Senate race, Democrat Jack Conway is still on the defensive after airing an ad, now known as the “Aqua Buddha,” in which he questions the Christian faith of Republican Rand Paul. The ad was based on anonymous story of a college hazing incident by one of Rand’s classmates. The ad backfired, and supporters rallied behind Paul.
“The study certainly shows a significant change in tactics by Democratic candidate from 2008, when their emphasis was more heavily directed on policy discussions,” said Pesci.
In 2008, when the congressional and gubernatorial Democrats were running in the groundswell that favored Barack Obama, they used far fewer personal attacks. The Democrats’ personal attacks in 2008 made up only 12% of their negative ads, meaning that they have doubled the percentage of their use of personal attacks in this election cycle.
The Wesleyan study concluded that the Democrats’ strategy is “likely driven” by a desire “to draw attention away from the policy environment.” In other words, the Democrats are throwing mud instead of talking about the real issues that the voters care about: the economy, government spending, taxes, and jobs.