Thursday, October 30, 2014

Going Negative

We’re less than a week away from midterm elections here in the U.S. Of course, anyone in this country who has turned on a television set, been near a computer, or receives mail knows that already thanks to the relentless campaign ads greeting us at every turn.

Was reading today over at Slate how this year the total number of ads concerning the 36 races for U.S. Senate seats is approaching 1 million. Here in North Carolina the race between incumbent Kay Hagan (D) and her opponent Thom Tillis (R) has produced more ads than any other in the country, currently coming at a clip of about 11,000 ads per week or about one ad per minute, they say.

The Slate article further notes how the great majority of campaign ads this year have been negative, something about which I found myself commenting out loud to Vera just a few days ago. I’d noticed that practically none of the ads for Tillis featured him at all, only Hagan, while the Hagan ads all seemed only to be showing Tillis.

The article notes how the week before last “all but two-dozen” of the nearly 11,000 Hagan/Tillis ads “contained at least some negative content.” That ratio changed a bit this week with more than 500 non-negative ads -- “roughly 5 percent” of the nearly 11,000.

It’s clear that in the current political climate “going negative” is the preferred approach. The rise of social media -- even more prominent and integral to Americans’ lives today than even two years ago -- might well be a primary factor here, as is current news media and the constant (and influential) efforts of many to voice and inspire outrage wherever possible, legitimate or otherwise.

The approach is hardly new, though perhaps more popular today than ever, and affirms how in politics any effort that is antagonistic to your opponent is considered equivalent to (or perhaps even better than) promoting yourself. I was trying to imagine an analogy from poker -- a “zero sum” game in which one can only benefit to the detriment of others -- and I think I came up with one.

Say each candidate has a certain amount of chips with which to play, with each chip representing one campaign ad. In poker when you make a bet, it is often either because you like the strength of your hand or you doubt the strength of your opponent’s hand. There are times, of course, when you aren’t sure and so your bet may not be so easily categorized, but let’s just focus on those two reasons for betting here.

The former bet would be a “positive ad” bet, made as a way of “supporting” your good hand. The latter bet would be a “negative ad” bet, made as a way of “attacking” what you perceive to be your opponent’s weak hand. In the latter case, your cards aren’t really that important -- you could hold anything, with your action primarily motivated by your perception of an opponent’s weakness.

Which I guess would mean in these races overwhelmed by both sides almost exclusively going with negative ads, the actual strength of each candidate is mostly irrelevant.

In any case, I’ll be glad when next week comes and all the chippiness finally ends.

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