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Political ads factor in win

Compared with 2000 election, the number of television ads nearly tripled.
Friday, November 5, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 8:26 p.m. CDT, Thursday, July 17, 2008

Potential voters were bombarded with TV ads for president starting in early March, when it became clear Sen. John Kerry would be the Democratic presidential nominee. Since then more than 630,000 ads have aired, according to the Nielsen Monitor-Plus and the University of Wisconsin Advertising Project.

That figure is almost triple the number of ads that ran in 2000, when TV viewers saw almost 245,800 ads, the project reported.

This year, swing states including Ohio, Wisconsin and, early on, Missouri were hardest hit.

“Ads want to get supporters out to vote, convince independent and undecided voters and steal away weak opposing supporters,” said Bill Benoit, a communications professor at MU and a national expert on campaign analysis.

Benoit said TV ads played a role in drawing 120 million people to the polls on Tuesday — the 60 percent voter turnout was the highest since 1968, according to Curtis Gans of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate.

Benoit said it isn’t possible, however, to determine from just one or two factors why one candidate is elected over another.

The Nielsen-Wisconsin project said the use of three main types of advertisements — those that promoted a candidate, attacked an opponent or contrasted an opponent’s policies or stands on an issue — ebbed and flowed during the campaign.

But generally absent from TV were ads in which candidates defended themselves against political attacks. Benoit said this is because candidates want to avoid straying from their primary message. Countering an attack also forces a candidate to identify and address a perceived weakness, thus reinforcing possible doubt in the minds of voters. And, Benoit said, candidates want to appear proactive rather than reactive.

“Voters want a candidate who can stand up with their own message,” he said.

This year, Bush and Kerry ads had contrasting messages, according to data collected by the Nielsen-Wisconsin project. The data suggest that the Kerry campaign focused on separating itself from the Bush camp on issues and policy, whereas the Bush campaign focused on attacking Kerry, running attacks in about half of its ads each month since March.

Bush’s ads strayed from the norm, according to Benoit, in that incumbent presidents are usually much more positive than their opponents.

Although it is important for a candidate to point out an opponent’s weaknesses, Benoit said, there is also a risk of offending voters.

“Voters don’t like mudslinging,” he said.

Ads for both Bush and Kerry addressed faults in their opponent’s policy rather than weakness of character, according to a study done by Benoit. He found that about two-thirds of both Bush and Kerry ads addressed policy — a message that has more effect on voter decision-making, he said.

Benoit added that Bush ads focused on terrorism and the war in Iraq, while Kerry emphasized jobs and the economy. These areas of focus are typical, as Democrats are perceived to be stronger on domestic issues while Republicans are stronger on foreign issues, he said.

Benoit said ads that focus on policy serve another purpose. “(The candidate) is more likely to win,” he said.

Missouri, heavily targeted in past elections, was for the most part left out of the ad fever during the last leg of this year’s campaign because a Bush win was expected. The state has given its electoral votes to the winning candidate in every presidential election since 1904 except 1956.


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