North Carolina is nearing the end of the most expensive U.S. Senate campaign in its history. The volume of negative ads in the race between Democratic Senator Kay Hagan and Republican state Speaker Thom Tillis is unprecedented. These ads matter — but not in the ways that the candidates and their campaign consultants hope they do.
When the negative barrage of ads is over, the winner will likely emerge with an approval rating well under 50 percent, meaning that whoever wins will likely be sworn in with a majority of North Carolinians already disapproving of her or him. Neither Hagan nor Tillis will have a popular mandate.
The situation will be no better for Congress because a majority of winning candidates take office without the majority support of the citizens they represent. They can no longer legitimately cite the “will of the people” in proposing legislation — because they are not in a position of strength when it comes to public support. Elected officials now often have little or no honeymoon period – even with the voters who supported them.
The ramifications of this for the body politic are serious. Though winners will be determined on Nov. 4, democracy is already the loser. We can expect to see continued partisan gridlock in Washington and increasing public dissatisfaction with government at all levels. It is a downward cycle that serves to repress voter turnout and fuel angry cynicism about the role of government.
Members of Congress who lack a mandate are usually more dependent on special interests for support — in terms of legislation and for reelection efforts. Politics can be lonely when the electorate feels disenfranchised — and interest groups are primed to capitalize on that. Lobbyists continue pouring money into influencing the legislative system. They often protect or advocate for very narrow interests, funding candidates and using SuperPacs advertising designed to maintain the status quo.
The irony is that despite the tens of millions of dollars flowing into political campaigns this year, in the case of Hagan versus Tillis, the polls indicate little movement since the beginning of the general election cycle. Polls in North Carolina showed the two candidates neck-and-neck in June, and more recent polls give Hagan a slight lead — but essentially within each poll’s margin of error.
The two reasons regularly cited for the toss-up race are a highly polarized electorate with few undecided voters and the idea that negative ads are only as effective as the source that broadcasts them. If the audience does not like the source of the ad, the message lacks impact.
Throughout the campaign, polls have consistently revealed that Hagan, Tillis and independent interest groups supporting them all have low approval ratings. Most voters simply don’t trust the candidates or the outside groups — so they are unaffected by the ads that they produce.
Many voters now say they are turned off by all the negative advertising in political campaigns. Yet over the past few election cycles, the number of negative ads has increased geometrically, especially in highly competitive races.
Campaigns and independent expenditure groups continue to spend enormous sums on television advertising because they are using the negative messages to rally their respective voter bases and motivate them to vote. The relentless ads help keep the base angry – and campaign advisers know that the angriest voters usually turn out in the highest numbers.
The percentage of negative ads in U.S. Senate races across the country has increased from 44 percent to 55 percent since the 2012 campaign cycle began, according to the Wesleyan Media Project. The Hagen-Tillis race illustrates the trend.
During the two-week period beginning Aug. 29, for example, 7,500 ads were aired throughout North Carolina, at a cost of more than $3 million. Fifty-five percent of the campaigns’ ads were negative, as were a whopping 80 percent of those run by independent expenditure groups.
The subject matter of these ads is predictable and familiar. Hagan has been attacked for her support of Obamacare, her voting record in support of President Barack Obama’s policies and her inability to sponsor and pass significant legislation. Tillis has been portrayed as supporting state tax policies that favor the rich, pressing for the state to defund Medicaid and passing legislation that hurts the environment.
Many political scientists contend that negative advertising has led to the disappearance of the nonpartisan voter and an increase in antipathy toward politicians and parties.
It’s increasingly dangerous to have our government run by those who feel the meat of their platform should be, “I don’t have to prove that I’m right. I just have to prove that you’re wrong.”