With less than two weeks before the September 9th Democratic primary, gubernatorial candidates are working overtime to get their political message out by mailed campaign literature and bombarding the airways with their 30-second commercials and at debates.
As primary day quickly approaches, political new comer Clay Pell is staying on message in his campaign literature and television ads, claiming he has a “real plan” to fix Rhode Island’s problems, even claiming that he will bring a “real plan” and a “fresh perspective” to the Governor’s Office if he is elected. On the other hand, Mayor Angel Taveras and General Treasurer Gina Raimondo duke it out to take the lead. Taveras even takes pop shots at Pell as more voters begin to support him.
From the start, Businessman Ken Block and Cranston Mayor Allan Fung took off their gloves and began negatively blasting teach other in their campaign literature, TV ads and even at debates. Block was not a real Republican who had voted for Democratic President Barack Obama, he even supported his new ObamaCare program. On the other hand, Block went after Fung’s handling of Cranston’s ticketgate, calling him a political insider.
Yes, as my good friend long-time Pawtucket resident Jon Anderson says, “it’s the silly season of politics.” Like it or not, negative campaigns are here to stay and they do work, say political pundits
Poll Numbers Shifting
Just as summer began, Democratic and Republican gubernatorial candidates began to get negative and the numbers began to shift.
According to an exclusive WPRI 12/Providence Journal poll, released recently, of 503 likely Rhode Island Democratic primary voters, Raimondo takes the lead at 32 percent, Taveras drops to 27 percent. Pell is closing in at 26 percent, the poll shows, conducted by Joe Fleming, of Fleming & Associates of Cumberland, Rhode Island. One percent of the voters give Todd Giroux their support. Only 13 percent of the respondents remain undecided.
Last May, a previous WPRI 12/Providence Journal poll showed a politically-unknown Pell had support of 12 percent of those polled. Huge infusions of his personal wealth on TV ad purchase and campaign outreach has ratcheted up his visibility. At that time, Taveras was in the lead with 33 percent, Raimondo at 29 percent. With a larger campaign war chest than the Mayor, she was able to chip away at his lead by focusing the voters on his City’s economic woes and spike in crime.
As to the Republican primary race, the universe of Republican voters is so small there are no public polls, says Chairman Mark Smiley, Rhode Island Republican Party. He notes that the Fung and Block campaigns are doing their own internal polling.
Negative Campaigning Works…
Negative campaigning works, says Wendy Schiller, Associate Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at Brown University. In his book, Defense of Negativity, Vanderbilt Professor John Greer found that “not only do negative ads work to undermine the opponent, they also convey information about candidates,” notes Schiller.
“Even when an ad is completely negative, it almost always contains some element of truth to it about the opponent’s record or positions, adds Schiller, a frequent guest of Rhode Island PBS’s “A Lively Experiment.”
Schiller gives her assessment of the Block-Fung race. “Because Ken Block was formerly a moderate, he has the most pressure to jump into his race with energy and aggression and undermine the perceived front runner Mayor Allan Fung,” she says, noting that he may have well been successful in doing that at a time when the police scandal in Cranston was unfolding and now more recently, with the filming of an expensive ad in Ohio instead of being created in Rhode Island
“Fung has fought back by criticizing Blocks proposal’s and his lack of elected experience, but his first negative ad on Blockheads was perceived to insult Block supporters more than Block himself, so they pulled it, notes Schiller.
As to the Taveras-Raimondo contest, Schiller believes the Mayor had to go negative against his opponent because she was criticizing him for higher taxes and the rising crime rate in Providence, noting that of these candidates went negative on Pell’s inexperience. It was a mistake because they did not want to give him status as a contender but it allowed him to shape his own reputation among voters with unchallenged TV ads, she says.
Schiller says that negative TV ads can backfire. “I think overly negative - or too much distortion of a record - can backfire more in Rhode Island because we are such a small state that most folks can spot an exaggeration when they see it,” she observes.
“We are already seeing Taveras go more negative on both Raimondo and Pell so expect to continue [in the upcoming weeks before the primary], adds Schiller. She predicts that the General Treasurer will “likely stay positive in effort to pull a few more voters from the undecided camps into her vote column. She says that Pell has responded to Taveras negative ads in a limited way, and expects him to stay above the negative fray in hopes of pulling votes from the other two Democratic candidates.
Can a political candidate win an election by not going negative? It depends on where you are in your campaign, says Schiller. For instance, a while back Raimondo went negative on Taveras, but only continues to do so in debates, not so much on TV ads. Pell thinks a positive strategy is also a winning strategy while Taveras is now on the attack. “We will just have to wait and see on primary night who wins,” she says.
Watching the Political Tumble from the Side Lines
From inside the Beltway, Darrell M. West, Ph.D., Vice President and Director of Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution, watches his former state’s gubernatorial races and gives this columnist his observations.
“The Ocean State’s GOP primary turned negative early in the campaign because it is only a two-person race. In this situation, once one candidate goes negative, the other person has to defend himself and go on the attack too,” says West, a former Brown University professor and a prominent Rhode Island political commentator, noting the complexity of negative advertising in three-person races. “If two candidates go negative, that sometimes benefits the third candidate who has stuck with a positive message,” he says.
West speculates as to Taveras’ use of negative TV ads. “Taveras has a problem on both flanks. Raimondo is more moderate while Pell is more progressive. So the Mayor went negative to prevent vote erosion on both sides of the political spectrum. His strategy hasn’t bought him much support and he has lost ground to Pell in the most recent poll, he says.
West agrees with Schiller that negative ads can backfire. “Negative ads can backfire if the candidate is seen as mean-spirited and overly negative. That can redound to the benefit of the candidate who has stayed positive,” he adds.
Look for more nasty TV ads in the upcoming weeks, says West. You often see more negativity as you get closer to election day. With the margin of victory very close among the Democratic candidates, that primary runs the risk of turning into a slugfest in its closing days,” he says.
Finally, West says that positive ads might push a political candidate to victory. “Candidates can win by staying positive in a three-way race. Lack of negativity becomes a distinguishing factor with the other two candidates, he notes.
Your Vote Counts
Historically, older voters from across the country have played a major role in electing political candidates because they consistently-voted in larger percentages than other age groups. The political fate of Rhode Island’s statewide and congressional elections and ballot initiatives may well rest on the shoulders of aging baby boomers and senior voters.
By now, the Ocean State’s political candidates have mailed campaign literature, debated, attended debates and gatherings, hoping to effectively deliver their political messages and ultimately influence their vote.
While negative ads may sway voters, take control of who you will vote for at the upcoming primary. Spend the next three weeks to read between the lines of campaign literature and negative ads, learning more about a candidate’s background and issues. You must separate political rhetoric and negative innuendoes from the substance of issues. Put time into determining who can best represent your interests.
If political candidates do not know the power of the educated voters, hopefully they will after the polls close at 8:00 p.m. on September 9th.
Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a Pawtucket-based writer who covers aging, health care and medical issues. He can be reached at email@example.com.