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The Growing Presence of Attack Ads in American Politics

With November 6 rapidly approaching, the general election for President of the United States is kicking into high gear in many respects.  Interestingly enough, Independent studies by both the Huffington Post and the Wesleyan Media Project, both summarized in the link below, have both reported that these last minute efforts have included a higher than normal proportion of television and radio ads that primarily attack the opposing candidate, rather than expand upon their own policies.

The article describes the results of the two studies that analyze the proportion of funds spent on television ads that were qualified as “negative” based on whether or not they mentioned an opponent by name and the sources of funding for those ads.  It states that of all television ads aired this campaign cycle, 70% are qualified as negative while at the same point in the campaign cycle only 9.1% of ads qualified as negative.  Not only is the proportion of negative ads hugely increased from the last election, the source of these ads is shifting as well.  The article quotes a study claiming that so far 60% of all ads aired have been paid for by outside groups, in other words not by the candidates themselves.  The increasing prevalence of attack ads from previous campaign cycles can be attributed to the emergence of campaign Super PACs that can accept unlimited anonymous funding and the increased outsourcing of television campaigning by the candidates themselves, but the very existence of these attack strategies can be explained using a single basic principle from class.

In a simplified view of the general election campaign strategy becomes a two player game, ignoring all but the Democratic and Republican candidates due to the high improbability of their victory, and their decision regarding attack ads is a simple binary decision, either attack their opponent or don’t.  These strategies will be referred to as offensive and defensive campaigning.  The payout for each party will be the change in their popularity rating among the general population, a positive or negative percentage from 0 to 100.  A typical payoff matrix for this game is depicted below:

Where the first number is the payoff for the Democrats and the second is the payoff for the Republicans.  This game is a classical example of the prisoners dilemma, where both parties would benefit from playing a certain combination of strategies, in this case both running defensive campaigns, but their dominant strategies dictate that they settle on another Nash Equilibrium, in this case both running offensive campaigns.  In and of itself this result is none too interesting but the implications of the necessity of offensive campaigning can be used along with graph theory to partially explain the current polarized political climate.

The graph of the current political network, for which a proxy is depicted above, is often used as an example of a graph that has two main groups with very few, weak ties between them.  This graph is of special interest to the candidates because the most vital nodes in the graph are those that lie between the two parties, as these often represent moderate or independent, undecided voters.  The two parties’ goal in running attack ads is to influence these voters and to do so they are currently flooding the airwaves with negative ads.  While this is a sensible strategy, it has an unfortunate side effect.  While these ads do reach the undecided voters to some degree, they also reach those voters already committed to a party.  These voters are densely connected to other voters of the same party and so they circulate the vitriol contained in these ads among themselves, often permeating the half-truths present in the attack ads.  This serves to further and further isolate the two parties from each other and will continue to do so until both parties come together and decide to run defensive campaigns.

Source:  Negative Ads Dominate 2012 Elections, Study Shows



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