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This summer, Sen. Mitch McConnell shocked absolutely no one when his campaign launched an early, nasty attack ad on his opponent, Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes. You may remember the ad — a poorly produced music video that repeatedly asked, “What rhymes with Alison Lundergan Grimes?”
In the Senate race in Connecticut last year, Democrat Christopher S. Murphy’s campaign launched attacks against Linda McMahon, alleging her record as CEO of the World Wrestling Entertainment hurt workers and helped herself.
These types of ads are par for the course in political campaigns. But the latest research by the Barbara Lee Family Foundation shows that voters don’t like negative ads — they’re tired of what they termed in focus groups as “bashing” and “mudslinging.” Yet negative ads work and are part of the reality of campaigning.
We know men are using negative ads to reach voters, and women need to do it, too. Voters expect more from women — they don’t expect to see female candidates act like typical politicians. And because of that, women tend to pay a higher price at the polls for being perceived as “going negative.” So how do they engage in contrasting with their opponents — a necessary and effective tactic — without losing their edge?
These new nonpartisan findings flip conventional wisdom on its head to reveal key pragmatic approaches women can take to contrast with their opponents without the negative effects of “going negative.”
Working with Lake Research Partners, Chesapeake Beach Consulting and a bipartisan team of professional media consultants who produce political ads, the Barbara Lee Family Foundation set out to hone in on what works and what doesn’t when women contrast themselves with their opponents.
Here’s what we found:
1. The most convincing ads are those in which a real person shares his or her story. Voters feel this helps the candidate’s platform become more relatable and authentic and makes the negativity of the ad seem more subtle. This seems particularly powerful from female candidates who voters believed would be more likely to bring the voice of real people to the dialogue and would be more in touch with real people’s lives.
2. It works well for a female candidate to represent herself in an ad. Voters react more favorably to a woman confidently speaking for herself and her positions. Female voters, especially, want to see and hear from female candidates because they expect more from them.
3. Women delivering the negative message also often worked better in a response ad or as a counterattack. This kind of ad created a sense of the female candidate as serious and thoughtful. It helped show strength and leadership, which past Barbara Lee Family Foundation research has revealed women have a harder time showing.
4. Voters respond favorably to negative ads when they feel the negative message is subtle and simple. Voters respond to ads that are clear and stick to a streamlined message, as opposed to listing a litany of claims about the opponent.
5. Contrary to conventional wisdom, voters appreciate humor from a woman in a negative ad. Humor also added an element of the unexpected, which helped voters remember the ad.
6. Voters want to hear what a candidate will do for them. Voters respond more favorably to negative ads if the candidate offers them a positive message about her plans, in addition to contrasting with her opponent.
Women can also sometimes push back with greater moral authority and implicitly suggest their opponent is a bully. That is difficult for a man to do.
We saw these findings in practice last election cycle, and we’ll continue to see them as 2014 races heat up. The McConnell and Grimes back-and-forth playing out in Kentucky is one high-profile example.
Grimes effectively used an unexpected dose of humor, addressed an attack head-on and stuck to one, streamlined message to undercut her opponent. And McConnell? Well, he just looks like a bully.
Barbara Lee is founder and president of the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, which works to advance women’s equality and representation in American politics through nonpartisan political research, strategic partnerships, and grants and endowments. For the full findings on Change the Channel: Ads That Work for Women, visit barbaraleefoundation.org.