At Vanderbilt University, John Geer is learning things about voters they might not know about themselves. For example, about this negative advertising we’re always griping about.
“First of all, people don’t dislike negative ads as much as people think they do,” Geer said, speaking to The City Paper last week.
A professor of political science, Geer is leading the Vanderbilt/YouGov Ad Rating project, an effort to nail down the public’s feelings about the barrage of advertising that besets them every four years. His partner in the project is Fred Davis, the prominent Republican advertising consultant responsible for the 2008 McCain ad that called Barack Obama “the biggest celebrity in the world” and Christine O’Donnell’s infamous “I’m not a witch” ad in 2010. More recently, Davis was revealed by The New York Times to be the man behind the pitch to reheat the Jeremiah Wright controversy in an ad campaign against the president. (He has since expressed regrets about his involvement.)
With consultation from Davis, Geer selects an ad and puts it into the field online, by way of the Internet-based market research firm YouGov. An accompanying survey asks viewers about their party affiliation, how the ad made them feel, and whether they thought the ad was memorable and truthful. Once there are enough respondents — 600 random Americans, with an oversample of 200 independent voters — Geer receives the data within 36 hours.
The responses are not necessarily surprising, Geer said, but they provide data that mostly hasn’t been available before.
For instance, response to supposedly negative ads is largely partisan. To the eyes of an Obama supporter, Geer explained, an attack ad aimed at Mitt Romney doesn’t seem so negative. Likewise, to that same Obama supporter an ad from Romney, deemed positive by most Republicans, feels like an attack.
Voters also tend to react differently to the term “negative ad” than they do to the ad itself.
“People like the information contained in negative ads,” Geer said. “Do they want to know if a candidate flip-flops? Yes. Do they want to know if a candidate will raise your taxes? Yes. The other side isn’t going to tell you that, so they want that information. Now if you ask them, do they want to see a negative ad, the answer is no. But they associate a negative ad with a harsh personal attack. And that’s not what most negative ads, at least at the presidential level, are all about.”
Even so, in the post-Citizens United era, there are a lot of those ads. One might expect that their unrelenting ubiquity would induce fatigue and dull their impact. But Geer can test for that, too. By comparing responses from a month ago to those from a week ago, he can get an idea of whether voters are becoming numb to the candidates’
respective pitches. So far, he’s seen little sign of fatigue. But just several weeks after Labor Day — the point where the average voter tunes into the election, traditionally — Geer cautions that there’s still plenty of time left.
Not surprisingly, Geer explained, the most effective ads prior to the party conventions were those attacking Romney, most likely because they filled a void of information about Romney, who was not as well known. Positive ads aired by the Obama campaign, on the other hand, or ads from the Romney campaign attacking the president, were less effective, Geer explained, because for the most part people have made up their minds about the president.
However, since the conventions, whatever effect Romney’s own stumbles may have on his chances, the ability of the Obama campaign to characterize him on their own terms might be waning.
Last week, Vanderbilt released the project’s latest findings, which showed that the Obama campaign’s most recent attack ad aimed at Romney was falling relatively flat. The ad, titled “Romney Won’t Say,” hits Romney for his refusal to release more of his tax returns and his avoidance of questions about how his economic plans would affect the middle class. But it apparently lacks teeth, and “failed to significantly change the opinions” of Democrats, Republicans, and most importantly, the independent voters in between.
“There is so much money available this election cycle that both campaigns are generating new ads by the hour,” Geer said in a release announcing the findings. “But in so doing, they ironically have not taken the time to make these ads interesting, memorable or effective.”
Voters may not dislike negative advertising as much as they let on, but it seems they do have discerning tastes.