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Tracking This Year's Negative Political Ads


Negative campaign ads have become just about as much a part of the season as pumpkin spice and the World Series. Joining us now to talk about some of these ads and their tone in this election cycle is Professor Michael Franz. He teaches political science at Bowdoin College, and he's one of the directors of the Wesleyan Media Project. Professor, thanks so much for being with us.

MICHAEL FRANZ: My pleasure.

SIMON: I have to tell you, I almost don't see an ad, political ad, these days that's not negative. Am I just watching the wrong spaces?

FRANZ: (Laughter). Well, it's possible. About 50 percent of the ads that air in federal campaigns are purely negative, but a number of them are also what we call contrast ads, which pit the policy messages of either candidate against each other. And if you combine those together, you get a huge majority of ads which do contain an attack on the opposition.

SIMON: Yeah. Have you noticed that this campaign season is any worse? Or any better, for that matter?

FRANZ: You know, it depends on how you want to analyze the data. What we've generally found is that the percentage of ads on television that are negative is roughly consistent with previous elections, like the previous midterm in 2014. But one big difference we're seeing this cycle is that there are a lot more TV ads on television. And so as a result of there being more TV ads, even though the percentage of negativity is the same, people are in actuality seeing more negative ads than they've ever seen.

SIMON: But aren't fewer people watching television, and more people are watching streaming services or getting ads online?

FRANZ: Yes. So fewer people are watching television, but one of the groups of people who tends to watch television in very traditional ways are older Americans, and they're the ones who are the most likely to vote in midterm campaigns. For younger people who are moving away from live television and getting more content online, there's a lot of negativity there, too. So it's very hard to escape a negative campaign environment when you're in the midst of a very competitive election season.

SIMON: What are some of the ads you've seen this year that stay with you? Or for that matter, since it's the season, haunt you?

FRANZ: (Laughter). You know, there are lots of advertisements that have connected or attached, I should say, themes to the opposition in ways that we haven't seen before. And so there are a few campaigns that have tried to critique their opposition as essentially being connected to terrorist organizations. And that kind of explicit attack is not something that we've generally seen in the past.

SIMON: Yeah. We're speaking in a week, obviously, when package bombs have been sent out to a number of people and questions are being raised about the tone of political rhetoric and public discourse these days. Do you draw any link between the tones set by some of these ads and a fear many Americans have that the political atmosphere in this country has just gotten a whole lot more mean?

FRANZ: Well, yeah. This is a tough one to decipher because I think that our tone and the vitriol between both sides is at an all-time high. Political advertising is a reflection of the polarization. The only thing I'll say as a wrinkle to that is at least campaign advertisements on television have to make an appeal to an electorate where you want to win the majority of votes. And so you might be trying to drum up support on your side of the aisle, but you are also speaking to a middle vote set of voters - moderates, independents or swing voters - and you can't be too vitriolic in those messages, more often than not. And that does, in a way, moderate your message.

SIMON: Michael Franz of Bowdoin College. He was co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project. Thanks so much for being with us.

FRANZ: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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