Goodbye to nasty campaign ads… until next time

To say elections have gotten more polarizing is to state the obvious. A case in point: the just-concluded race for Montana’s open seat in the House of Representatives. Divisive as it was, there is one thing on which all sides seem to agree: the end of the negative political ads is a welcome blessing.

From attack ads seeking to ruin a person’s reputation to contrast ads showing one candidate as all good and the other as pure evil, on television, radio, and in print, this short campaign seemed to go on forever. 

Is  there anyone who isn’t feeling overwhelmed by the non-stop negativity? As if one or two of those ads wasn’t bad enough, some media took to running them back to back, three or four in sequence. 

The barrage would be unacceptable even if these ads were somewhat neutral in tone, but they are not. Pandering to our fears about the other party’s “true” goals, the ads portray candidates as demons with unspoken – and presumably unspeakable – hidden agendas. 

It’s the modern version of mudslinging, complicating the challenge of figuring out who is most suited to represent the wide diversity of voices in our state and our communities. This candidate, the ads say, is unMontanan because he supports registering assualt rifles. The other guy is unMontanan because he doesn’t. This one hates the poor and supports tax breaks for the rich. The other one is just looking to get rich while in office. This one has no morals, but neither does that one. 

When is the last time you saw an ad explaining what a candidate would do if elected? What the candidates stand for is not the point, apparently. The point, if there is one, is that the other guy is too horrible to contemplate. We surely can’t elect him, so even if our guy is deeply flawed, we better give him our vote.

In the end, after millions of dollars have been spent trying to scare us into voting one way or the other, who wins? 

Surely not the voters. By the time a negative campaign like this one is over, both candidates are damaged. Trust, that very trust voters need in order to feel their interests are being heard and represented, is as eroded as a gumbo road after a thunderstorm. And the “muck” that has been raked up during the campaign is stuck in our minds as surely as gumbo sticks to tires.

Why do they do it? Because it works. Or at least that is the cardinal wisdom in the world of political science, even though most studies have failed to show negative campaign ads change people’s votes. 

Having to listen to a vile ad that isn’t going to change my vote is annoying, but I worry about larger, longer-lasting impacts. It’s possible the damage done during a campaign like this one erodes more than our trust in candidates. By extension, I think, we lose faith in the whole political system – candidates, parties, PACs, and the political offices they seek to control.

Is this really what we want?

I’m not sure it matters, as those who control the advertising dollars are convinced this approach works. That’s why in our house we honed our “mute button” reflexes to Olympic levels, refused to answer phone calls from unrecognized numbers and “screened” our mail over the round file. 

Thankfully, it’s all over now. But as we breathe a sigh of relief, we also know the reprieve will be short lived. Here comes 2018 – let the campaigning begin.

Poll

When do you think the snow will finally be melted in Lewistown?