I Promise I Won’t Go Negative. My Friends, However…

If a politician promised to only campaign positively, would you believe him? And in an era of massive outside spending, would you even be able to tell if he’d kept his promise?

We’re seeing an interesting test of this right now in Colorado. The state is home to three very close, very well-funded races: the House race in the 6th CD (Coffman v. Romanoff), the U.S. Senate race (Udall v. Gardner), and the governor’s race (Hickenlooper v. Beauprez). TV commercial breaks are absolutely filled (like, seriously, there are no other ads) with fierce attack ads between these various candidates, with the notable exception of those in the governor’s race. Governor John Hickenlooper (D) and his opponent, former Rep. Bob Beauprez (R), shook hands last month in a pledge to not run negative ads against each other.

This is somewhat of an oddity among competitive races this year. It’s advantageous, to some extent, to Hickenlooper, who has a reputation of running quirky but positive ads (one of the perks of never having run against a serious competitor until now). At least he doesn’t have to come off looking desperate by changing his sunny demeanor. And while surely both candidates consider breaking this pledge from time to time, they have basically held to it, and it’s not clear the race would be any different if they were both going negative. (Hickenlooper is just about as popular as he should be given the fundamentals, Patrick Egan reports.)

But just because the candidates aren’t slinging mud doesn’t mean no mud is being slung. The Democratic Governors’ Association and a PAC called Making Colorado Great, among others, have been running negative ads criticizing Beauprez for his stances on reproductive rights. Beauprez has made an issue of this, suggesting that Hickenlooper is reneging on his non-negativity pledge by allowing his allies to go negative. Meanwhile, the Republican Governors’ Association and the National Rifle Association have been running ads critical of Hickenlooper.

Have the candidates kept their word on non-negativity? Basically, technically, yes. Can voters even tell? Probably not. Chances are, few voters can distinguish between an ad funded by a candidate and one funded by an allied political action committee. Outside spending is enormous in this race and is profoundly negative. (It may even be more negative than it otherwise would have been since the candidates don’t have to put their name on the attack ads and take ownership of them.)

Negativity actually gets a bad rap in American politics. As enjoyable as Hickenlooper’s positive ads may be (here’s a favorite), something that actually critiques an opponent’s stance or tells you what kind of governor the opponent would turn out to be is far more useful to voters trying to make a decision. But at a time when outside groups are free to run their own ads and spend whatever they want in doing so, non-negativity pledges, even if adhered to, are pretty close to meaningless.

[Cross-posted at Mischiefs of Faction]

Seth Masket

Seth Masket is an associate professor of political science at the University of Denver.