Gubernatorial Candidates Go Negative to Get Votes

Published in Pawtucket Times, August 22, 2014

With less than three 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 two days ago, of 503 likely Rhode Island Democratic primary voters, Raimondo takes the lead at 32%, Taveras drops to 27%. Pell is closing in at 26%, 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% of the respondents remain undecided.

Last May, a previous WPRI 12/Providence Journal poll showed a politically-unknown Pell had support of 12% 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%, Raimondo at 29%. 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.

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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 hweissri@aol.com

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Poll Calls Upon Congress to do “the people’s work”

Published in the Pawtucket Times, January 10, 2014

Four months ago, public anger reached a boiling point when the Republican-led House, controlled by its minority faction of Tea Party members, and the Democratic majority in the Senate failed to agree to an appropriations continuing resolution.
As a result of this budget impasse, a 16 day federal shutdown forced the furlough of 800,000 federal employees and another 1.3 million were required to report to work without known payment dates.

Public polls at that time blamed the GOP for turning its back on the nation by putting partisan politics first rather than doing the People’s business.” The popularity of Congress sank to a new historic low with heated partisan conflict echoing throughout the hallways of Congress.

Hammering Out an 11th Hour Deal

Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) with the blessings of conservative groups, including the Heritage Action, the Club for Growth, Freedom Works, and the Senate Conservatives Fund, forcefully pushed House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) to offer continuing resolutions not acceptable to President Obama and Congressional Democrats to politically force a delay or to defund the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (called “Obamacare”). Strong GOP opposition, spearheaded by Tea Party lawmakers, to raising the nation’s debt ceiling almost forced the government to run out of money to pay its bills.

After weeks of intense political bickering, Congress finally hammered out a political compromise, one that would open the doors of government, but also raise the debt ceiling to keep the nation from free-falling off the fiscal cliff. A failure to raise the debt ceiling could have resulted in the nation’s credit rating being downgraded. If this occurred, average Americans might have seen higher interest rates for mortgages, car loans, student loans and even credit cards. Higher business expenses, due to expensive borrowing rates, might have forced businesses to stop hiring or even to lay off employees. Housing prices might have drop and retail sales slow. The 11th hour compromise kept the American tax payer and business community from taking a huge hit in their pocketbook.

Although Cruz and Tea Party lawmakers in both chambers viewed shutting down the federal government and not raising the debt ceiling as a way to put excess government spending on the chopping block economy, there was economic damage. According to the economists at Standard & Poors, the total cost of the political gridlock to the nation’s economy that occurred before Christmas was estimated to be $24 billion.
Americans Lack Confidence in Congress

With the new Congressional session beginning this month, a new national poll released last week by AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs reveals that few Americans have faith in the current political status with Congress receiving low marks on its performance of upholding the views of most Americans while only 9 percent say it is doing a good job.

According to the poll that comes months after the first government shutdown in 17 years, 70 percent lack confidence in the federal government’s ability “to make progress on important issues facing the nation in 2014.”

However, the poll findings indicate that the respondents have a little bit more faith in their local and state governments, with 45 percent saying that they are at least moderately confident in their state government and 54 percent having at least moderate confidence with elected officials at the local level.

The federal government receives low marks on its performance. For instance, 55 percent believe the government is doing a poor job of representing the views of most Americans while only 9 percent say it’s doing a good job.

Meanwhile, the poll’s results find Americans are more pessimistic than optimistic on matters such as the nation’s ability to produce strong leaders, America’s role as a global leader, and the opportunity to achieve the American dream.

The People’s preferred agenda for the government in 2014 includes a diverse set of policy issues that range from economic problems to social policies to foreign affairs, notes the poll. Health care reform tops their list of priorities, mentioned by 52 percent of respondents as one of the top ten problems, followed by unemployment (42 percent), the economy in general (39 percent), and the federal deficit (31 percent).

“While it is very easy to ask people to choose a single ‘most important problem’ and to build a list for the answers, the reality is that government has to address many issues at the same time,” said Trevor Tompson, director of the AP-NORC Center. “This survey, with data about the public’s priorities on a range of policy issues, provides policy makers with rigorous data as they seek to understand the public’s outlook on where the country is now and what the action agenda should be for the year ahead.”

Wendy Schiller, Associate Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at Brown University, notes that the AP-NORC poll reveals “broader concerns expressed in national opinion polls, and by the average Rhode Islander “that our country seems to be slipping on lots of levels.”

Schiller, a frequent guest on Rhode Island PBS’s “A Lively Experiment,” notes that aging baby boomers and seniors worry about issues facing the younger generations, personal debt resulting from student loans to national debt. On the other hand, “Younger folks worry about how they will take care of their parents and grandparents, as well as providing for their own retirement,” she says.

“In a state like Rhode Island, which has such a strong family centered culture, these issues weigh heavily on almost everyone’s minds,” observes Schiller.

One of the poll’s positive findings was that the respondents did not cite healthcare for seniors as a pressing issue even though they did express concern over Social Security and health care reform, adds Schiller. “Preserving Medicare is as important, if not more, to the physical and financial well-being of seniors, so I found it striking that it was not as large a concern [as other issues].”

The polls negative findings of a distrust of government, rather than just a disappointment, concerns Schiller, noting that “Democracies do not fare well when the people lose faith in their government.”

As indicated by the poll, Schiller believes that Rhode Island state elected officials are viewed more positively by voters than those serving in Congress. But, 2014 will be a challenging year for them, especially with issues like the 38 Studios debacle, pension reform issues, and Rhode Island job growth. Schiller believes that “If the General Assembly can increase the trend towards greater transparency and accountability, than they might be able to reverse the downward slide of public faith in government.”

As noted in the poll, “public opinion about Congress is at an all-time low,” says Darrell M. West, Ph.D., Vice President and Director of Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution. “People are disenchanted with the hyper-partisanship in Washington, D.C., and the inability of congressional leaders to address major policy problems, he says, noting that the government shutdown was very disturbing to mainstream and people now worry about Congress getting anything done.

West, a former Brown University professor and a prominent Rhode Island political commentator, does not see a major resurgence of bipartisanship in this Congress.
“The parties have incentives to highlight their differences rather than compromise their principles. That will make it difficult for the parties to work together, he says.

But West sees an indicator that the GOP might move away from its ties to the Tea Party that put a damper on reaching across the aisle to get the people’s work done. “The only promising sign is Speaker Boehner’s declaration of independence from the right-wing. A month ago, Boehner criticized outside conservative groups and said they had lost all credibility. If he really believes that, it may embolden him to work on immigration reform and pass needed legislation”, says West.

Because of the complexity of today’s domestic and foreign policy, the People want and need their elected officials to quit this partisan bickering and join together to solve the enormous problems that face the nation, warns well-know Rhode Island activist, Susan Sweet, a keen watcher of state, national, and global politics. “Without the political will to stand together and strengthen the People of America, this great experiment in democracy could decline and fall,” she says.

The AP-NORC national poll was conducted by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research from Dec. 12-16, 2013, with 1,141 adults. Additional information about how the survey was conducted, including the survey report and the survey’s complete topline findings can be found on the AP-NORC Center’s website at http://www.apnorc.org.

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a Pawtucket-based writer covering aging, health care and medical issues. He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com.