* Will Caskey, a regular commenter here, has an excellent op-ed over at the Illinois Observer about Rep. Toni Berrios’ Chicago primary battle against Will Guzzardi and broader lessons that should be learned. Go read the whole thing…
Negative ads, mail work. Say it in the mirror until you believe it: negative attacks work. Whether that is good or bad doesn’t matter. It works. It’s what the people want.
If you examine all the mail sent in this race (you’re welcome, by the way), you’ll see that both candidates smacked the crap out of each other. About half of the pieces from both sides was negative.
Witness: Berrios sent out 40 total mail pieces, of which 17 (42 percent) were negative, 8 were positive, 4 were GOTV, 6 were positives sent by interest groups and 5 were “dear neighbor” letters. If you count just the actual direct mail sent by Berrios and House Democrats, then 68 percent were negative.
Guzzardi sent out 9 total pieces, of which 4 (44 percent) were negative.
Bear in mind that these are only counts for mail sent to the general voting universe. It’s probable both sides sent mail to more specific audiences
The only surprise is that the negative percentages were that low. As the incumbent, Berrios has an interest in disqualifying Guzzardi. There’s also the added benefit that overwhelming negatives can depress turnout, which usually benefits incumbents. Guzzardi has an interest in informing people why they should care about their state rep, which usually means because their state rep screwed up.
Ah, but this isn’t just any negative mail.
It’s screaming, nasty, ugly, unsettling negative mail. Mail with sex offenders gripping young girls and neighborhood watch-style flyers yelling about rapists in the immediate vicinity. These attacks aren’t over the top, they’re flying at 30,000 feet. Are these attacks fair? Say it with me: It doesn’t matter. Every attack is fair, and unfair. It depends on how much you like the person being attacked. Fairness is a matter of opinion; proper attacks are a matter of fact.
But are they effective?
As I learned the hard way, presentation matters. An attack can be accurate, and poll well, but it can still be worthless with improper presentation. People expect to see a certain range of information about politicians. When we are presented with unexpected information our most frequent reaction is simply to deny it.
And that’s the risk in this approach. It’s not that there will be a backlash. The only “backlash” coming from the district is from people who were already going to vote for Guzzardi. (By complete coincidence, Guzzardi claims he’s hearing about a great big backlash!) The danger in bad presentation is that the attacks simply won’t work. You have a very limited window of persuasion in a campaign, and all opportunity costs are serious failures.
That last point is why the Democrats’ over-the-top attacks on Guzzardi may not have worked. And if they didn’t work, Guzzardi probably wins tonight.
Again, go read the whole thing.