At Issue: Bad Ads

Club for Growth has spent millions of dollars on attack ads, but sometimes good intentions end up helping the other side.

The Club for Growth, a small-government, anti-tax advocacy group, has spent literally millions of dollars on attack ads targeting Congressman and U.S. Senate candidate Doug Collins since February. They are largely wasting their money, not because current Sen. Kelly Loeffler is particularly vulnerable or that Congressman Collins is a sure thing. It’s because the Club for Growth’s ads are so bad.

Just to be clear, I don’t have a dog in this fight. And I understand the angst some Republicans feel that this campaign will divide Republicans at a time when they can least afford it. But, and I’m not being silly or facetious when saying this, the anti-Collins ads, especially the ones by Club for Growth, may actually be helping Collins in his campaign to unseat Sen. Loeffler. That’s because the ads in question are patently bad.

To add some context, I’m mainly interested in this campaign as a political analyst and observer. I have a particular professional interest in what the media calls “negative campaigning.” In fact, it was the topic of my doctoral dissertation and the book I wrote in 2008, Mudslingers: The 25 Dirtiest Political Campaigns of All Time. For the curious, George Wallace ran the most negative campaign in American history in his 1970 bid to become Alabama governor.

When I speak to students, political groups or civic groups on this topic, I emphasize to them that there are good negative ads and there are bad negative ads. Political campaigns are part art and part science. And when it comes to creating good, or “effective,” attacks on an opponent there are certain rules that should be followed. Consider them best practices, lessons that political observers have learned from attack campaigns.

From years of such experiences, and also from the research literature, here are just a few of the basic “rules” of good attack ads. 1) The content or topic of the ad should be relevant to most voters; 2) the claims in the ad should be documented to the extent possible with credible sources of information; and 3) the claims in the ad should be believable.

No. 3 is the main problem with the Club for Growth ads. If true, the claims made in the ads are certainly relevant to Republican voters. For example, that Congressman Doug Collins is allied with U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez; that he is a big-spending liberal who wants to raise taxes to the extent possible; and that he is a creature of the D.C. swamp that President Donald Trump wants to drain.

Even the documentation used in such ads can be considered credible. House votes, for example, can be a great way to document one’s criticisms of an ad target.

The big problem here, of course, is that the claims made in these ads simply are not true. In fact, they are preposterous. Therefore, the ads fall short of the believability threshold and will not be believed by most Republican voters, the intended audience.

Collins is known as an economic and social conservative, and in the impeachment process he was one of the most ardent defenders of Donald Trump in the entire U.S. Congress. Actually, it may be the Club for Growth that has a problem with President Trump. They’re not a fan and never have been. In fact, in 2016 the Club for Growth was a charter member of the “Never Trumper” club.

So on the question of judging the relative merits of candidates for Republican office, the organization itself has a bit of a credibility issue. Which is another problem for them when judging the value and effectiveness of negative ads – the credibility and reputation of the attacker.

And while we’re being critical, there are other problems with the ads. They don’t look very good. They look slapped together from someone’s laptop over the weekend. The tone and the feel of the ads is over-the-top and seem more likely to blow up in the attackers’ face than damage the intended target.

Kelly Loeffler and Doug Collins are both fine people. They both have their strengths and weaknesses as candidates. But I would simply observe that Sen. Loeffler isn’t being served well by some of her “supporters.” Maybe Club for Growth should find a new way to spend those dollars.

Categories: At Issue, Opinions