WASHINGTON – Outside political groups, long known for their negative advertisements featuring ominous music and foreboding narration, are trying something new this campaign season: a pivot to the positive.
Some of the best-known super PACs – such as Americans for Prosperity, which is backed by the conservative billionaires David H. and Charles G. Koch – are making an effort to also cast their candidates in an appealing way instead of solely attacking opponents. This year, 16 percent of Americans for Prosperity’s spots have been positive; in 2012, the group did not run a single one.
An ad by the group supporting Rep. Steve Southerland II, R-Fla., focuses on his record of fighting President Obama’s health care law before it concludes, “Thank Steve Southerland for fighting to keep our health care decisions in our hands.”
The shift is the product of several factors – the renewed hope that positive commercials can break through the advertising clutter; lessons of the 2012 presidential race, when Mitt Romney and outside Republican groups largely failed to offer an alternate message to an onslaught of negative spots; and the increasing prevalence of stock footage made public by campaigns that makes producing positive ads easier.
“Any idiot can do a negative ad badly, and many do, but a good positive ad captures a sense of the candidate and the candidate’s connection to the place where he’s running,” said Rick Wilson, a Republican strategist who advises roughly a dozen super PACs and candidates and who made the 2002 ad tying a Democratic senator from Georgia, Max Cleland, who lost both legs and his right hand in the Vietnam War, to Osama bin Laden. “I don’t pull a punch when a punch is necessary, but there is a certain craft to introducing yourself to people in this business that can get lost in the shuffle.”
By one group’s estimate, 29 percent of the spots by Karl Rove’s American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS, its affiliated nonprofit group, have had a positive spin this year; at the same point in 2012, the group had run no positive spots, and during the entire previous cycle, the group produced only three positive ads – accounting for roughly 1 percent of the spots it ultimately broadcast.
In all, 29 percent of the total spots by outside groups have been positive this election cycle, compared with the 20 percent that carried a positive message at the same point in 2012, according to the group, Kantar Media/CMAG, which tracks every political ad on broadcast or national cable television.
Super PACs are not totally rewriting their campaign playbooks. Negative advertising works, and after the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010, which paved the way for unlimited spending by outside groups, they have largely considered themselves masters of the dark arts, preferring to leave the positive messages to the candidates themselves. So far, the change has been modest, and it remains unclear if it will hold through Election Day.
But with a historic barrage of outside groups’ money pouring into crucial states and districts across the country, the all-negative, all-the-time approach seems to be changing.
Positive ads, strategists say, can be particularly effective in helping an incumbent combat negative attacks, or helping lesser-known candidates define themselves.
The shift toward the positive also stems partially from the lessons of 2012, when Romney was hammered with negative spots, and his campaign and outside groups were criticized for not doing enough to combat the assault with positive messages of their own.