I am often asked by my students, friends and even reporters why campaigns in New Jersey are so nasty and why candidates rely so heavily on negative ads. The answer, quite simply, is that candidates rely on negative campaigning because it works. If it didn’t work, candidates would have abandoned the approach years ago. In short, people are much more likely to vote against something or someone when they feel threatened. And after all, that is the point of negative campaigning.
The key question then is why negative campaigns work. The answer to this is again relatively simple. Negative campaigns work because most voters in New Jersey are ill-informed and get most of their information about any statewide election from television advertisements. Fewer and fewer individuals read newspapers, and talk radio, with the exception of 101.5 FM, focuses on national issues.
There are a number of reasons why New Jersey voters are ill-informed on issues or candidates. Many of us are busy, simply trying to make ends meet and don’t have the luxury of taking time to become well-informed. Others are distracted or disinterested and only turn their attention to an election in the last weeks of a campaign. Still others (a significant portion of the electorate) are disillusioned or alienated and choose not to participate, as evidenced by the 49 percent voter turnout in the last two gubernatorial elections.
Another reason is geographic. New Jersey is located between two of the largest media markets in the country, New York and Philadelphia and lacks its own state-wide or state-oriented media market. Due to this position, state-wide politics and issues receive scant attention from the media outlets in New York and Philadelphia. My colleague, Matthew Hale, has conducted content analysis of the evening news broadcasts of the major outlets in New York and Philadelphia and has found both woefully lacking in their coverage of the Garden State. This has been compounded in recent years by the demise of newspapers and the shrinking coverage of state politics that they provide.
Since the news media does not adequately cover New Jersey politics or elections, candidates are forced to rely on paid advertisements to reach voters. It goes without saying that television ads in two of the nation’s largest media markets are incredibly expensive. Candidates must get the “biggest bang for their buck” in these ads. Since it is virtually impossible to convey complex or nuanced policy positions in a 30 second television ad, campaigns are forced to air puff pieces that tout the virtue of their candidate (usually done as an introductory component of the campaign) or ads that criticize and attack their opponents. For campaigns, the strategy is simple: if you can’t get voters to like your candidate, get them to fear your opponent.
In this election, all three campaigns have employed this strategy. The Corzine campaign has aired ads with veiled and not-so-veiled references to Christie’s weight. The Christie’s campaign has assigned blame to the governor for all the state’s economic woes that have been experienced during the worst recession in generations. The Daggett campaign received a fair amount of media attention for an ad that portrays caricatures of his opponents as aloof and self-absorbed or overweight and out of control.
The next generation of campaign strategists will learn much from this election. Unfortunately, it will all be negative.