WASHINGTON, D.C. - “The polarization of American politics is not an accident,” according to the dean of political reporters. It is the “direct result of political communication, the 30-second ads, whose negative tone and content heighten partisanship and drive centrist voters away from the ballot box.”
The late David Broder wrote that in January of 1996.
The infection Broder spotted early has turned into antibiotic-resistant, flesh-eating political bacteria that would have been hard to imagine 20 years ago. The polarization of the political class has hardened. But the explosion in the volume of political ads has been dizzying.
The New York Times has analyzed data about campaign ads collected by a company called Kantar Media/CMAG. Through July, the number of political ads on television has increased 70 percent since the last midterm elections in 2010. That growth comes from the explosion of ads by independent groups since the Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in Citizen’s United that lifted restrictions on political spending. Take a look:
The total number of ads for Senate races has almost doubled. They are concentrated, of course, in the seven or eight states with tight races. “Pity the poor voter in swing states,” said Harrison Hickman, a Democratic pollster. The ads are “bludgeoning people.
The Times says spending is set to add up to $2 billion for the midterms. And that is in a year when there are no close races in the biggest media markets such as New York, California, Texas and Florida. Imagine the deluge of dough and ads in 20116 and 2018.
Democratic independent groups have joined the arms race with gusto, according to the Times. Four top Democratic outfits -- Senate Majority PAC, House Majority PAC, Patriot Majority USA and Put Alaska First PAC – have spent about $36 million on ads so far. That compares to the $44 million spent by Americans for Prosperity, the group backed by the Koch brothers.
Americans for Prosperity aired its first ads for this cycle in September 2013. So there’s another benefit of Citizen’s United; we’ll never have to endure a season without political ads on TV again.
The Times story notes that the parties and candidates have lost control of campaigns. “The outside groups are dictating the terms and message of the 2014 contests, defining candidates long before the candidates are able to define themselves and start reaching voters,” reporter Ashley Parker wrote.
Even if two congressional candidates try to have a classy campaign now, the independent groups can drag them into the gutter. The groups “interfere with any attempt to have a civil conversation,” Hickman says.
But more worrisome, according to Hickman, is how the nuclear wars exacerbate to negative trends – apathy and polarization. Ads run by independent groups tend to be more negative than candidate ads. And they focus on true believers and the parties’ hard core. “The messages are intended to incite not inform,” Hickman said.
At the same time, they are a huge turn off to what Richard Nixon might have called the “unpolarized majority.” Most voters, unlike their representatives in Washington, aren’t extreme in their views and aren’t especially consistent in them either. Most voters don’t pay enormous attention to elections. Negative and sleazy ads, study after study have shown, further alienate voters. Hickman says the volume of advertising and the low-rent content of them makes “apathetic voters aggressively apathetic.”
The more apathetic the voters are, the harder it is to sway them and the more ads candidates and independent groups buy in hopes they can penetrate. Rinse, repeat. More apathy, more ads, more alienation, more ads. It is mutually-assured destruction in politics. And it’s working.
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