Negative ads in the governor’s race

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“A tree fell on Greg Abbott. He sued and got millions. Since then he’s spent his career working against other victims.”

Wendy Davis’ “Wheelchair Ad” has been getting a lot of attention as the Texas gubernatorial election comes to a close. Negative advertising has been a large component of this election, but did it work?

People would assume that negative ads result in votes for the candidate who airs them, but that’s not true in many cases. Negative ads actually work by suppressing votes for the candidate the ad is about, instead of increasing votes for the candidate who put out the ad. Researchers and psychologists say there is evidence that negative ads work because they influence the subconscious minds of many voters.

Dr. Steve Edwards, professor of advertising at Southern Methodist University, says that negative advertising works on a couple of levels for some very practical reasons. First, negative information is considered to be more diagnostic than positive information. People tend to avoid risk-taking, and negative information helps us avoid risks. Therefore, people learn from experience that negative information is more valuable than positive information.

Second, research shows that memory for negative information fades slower than the source of that information. What this means in politics is that you will hear something negative about a candidate and immediately discount it as biased. You think, “of course the candidate’s opponent will say negative things.” However, over time you forget the source of the information and remember the negative statement. Therefore, when you try to recall your attitudes about the candidate, you remember only the negative information and not the fact that you thought the information was biased.

I conducted a survey that about 30 SMU students took. I built it on SurveyMonkey and then posted it on Facebook, asking students in Texas to take it. The results concluded that 20 out of the 30 identify as Republican. About half of them haven’t seen either Abbott’s or Davis’ negative political ads. And more students claim to like the candidate who put out the negative ad less than the candidate the negative ad is about.

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One of the many students who hasn’t seen the ads, Elena Politiski says, “I haven’t seen advertisements for the 2 candidates, but I heard they were very controversial. Especially the one with Wendy Davis and the wheelchair.” Another student, Abby Lowman, disliked Davis’ ad. “She is more interested in slamming her opponent than getting her platform out to the public. She seems desperate.” Dr. Edwards responds to this, “Again, people will claim to be turned off from negative advertising, but they will remember the information. Negative advertising in the aggregate negatively impacts politics by depressing the voter turnout. People tend to get sick of politics and just skip participation in the process.”

There is a fine line between a negative advertisement and libel. Unfortunately, in politics, candidates can claim whatever they want because the US holds the freedom of political speech as most sacred. There are a few limits, but there’s almost no regulation of content. Dr. Edwards says, “Freedom triumphs truth.”

The use of negative ads in the primary races is often discouraged by political parties because it can damage the eventual nominee and jeopardize their chances in the general election. Certain ads are more disliked than others. CNN says that among the ads that are strongly disliked are the ones considered too personal or that shed a negative light on a family member.

During the current Texas gubernatorial election, Wendy Davis put out an ad focusing on Texas Attorney General and GOP candidate, Greg Abbott’s disability. This ad may have been a little too personal. But according to Fox News, Abbott shrugged off the ad. “If she wants to attack a guy in a wheelchair, that’s her prerogative,” he told Fox News’ Sean Hannity. “As for me, I’m running a different type of campaign … I will focus on the future of Texas while my opponent continues to attack me.”

Due to the immense criticism, Davis claimed that the ad was designed to portray Abbott as someone who worked against the disabled. During her remarks, Davis was flanked by disability rights activists, which included two people in wheelchairs.

A reporter asked Davis if the ad exploits Abbott’s disability. She replied, “This ad is about one thing and one thing only. It’s about Greg Abbott’s hypocrisy.” Abbott disagreed, telling Hannity, “It shows that her campaign is focused on one thing, and that is attacking me … I don’t think it’s going to sell real well, so I’m going to stay focused on the future.” The candidate then compared Davis’ campaign to President Obama, saying, “Most of what I’m running on is trying to solve the problems he [Obama] has created, even here in Texas. My opponent is having to run from Barack Obama, and all she can do is attack me.”

According to Fox News, Texas GOP Chairman Steve Munisteri swiftly called on Davis to apologize to the disabled community. “I expect in campaigns that candidates will run negative and misleading ads; however, I never expected a candidate to use another candidate’s physical disability as a prop in an ad or to their advantage,” Munisteri said. “The Wendy Davis ad is easily the most offensive and despicable ad I have seen in my 42 years in politics. … Using a wheelchair as a prop for political advantage is an affront to all disabled people.”

Greg Abbott released his own attack ad though. It focuses on comparing Davis to President Obama and says if Davis is elected, it’d be the same as having President Obama serving as Texas governor. Clearly, this would be unpopular in conservative Texas.

Davis spokesman Zac Petkanas said the ad is an attempt by the Republican party to divert attention away from his own hypocrisy. “If Greg Abbot is as far ahead as he claims, why is he releasing an attack ad? The answer is that Wendy Davis is closing in and Mr. Abbott is desperately trying to distract from his hypocrisy,” Petkanas said. Davis thinks Abbott has advocated for changes in Texas law as attorney general that could make it difficult for other disabled people to get the kind of damages he received after being struck by the tree. This has been an unfriendly election filled with negative ads, but Abbott has always had and currently has a large lead. We’ll see the results on Tuesday.

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