Why do Texas candidates run such negative ads?

Because they work.

We (voters) make them work.  At least, that’s what campaigns believe. And, we’ve given them reasons to believe.

Recently, the Texas Tribune offered evidence on the effectiveness of attack ads in a poll done February 1-7, 2010. My thanks to the Tribune for doing this test and sharing so many of the detailed results online. There is an 18 page summary and 225 pages of crosstabs linked to the story (“Accentuate the Negative“).

Respondents who said they planned on voting for Senator Hutchison, Governor Perry, or were undecided in the GOP primary were divided into two groups at random. One group was shown a Hutchison ad attacking Perry and the other group saw a Perry ad attacking Hutchison. Before and after seeing the ad the respondents were asked to rate their likelihood of voting for Hutchison on a 100-point scale. It’s the kind of classic experimental design that we’d love to be able to do more often.

Voters who saw the “Bailout” ad attacking Hutchison averaged 37.06 before seeing the ad and 31.63 after.

Voters how saw the “Cha-Ching” ad attacking Perry averaged 35.98 before seeing the ad and 40.43 after.

Several cautionary notes about these results:

  • This method only measures the impact of the ad immediately after viewing. Its seems certain that the impact of the ad diminishes over time as voters forget the ad and/or get new information about the campaign. This means we’re probably measuring an ad at its peak impact and it doesn’t tell us how much impact the ad had on the voter’s final choice on election day.
  • The results were “statistically significant.” This means that the impact can be distinguished from zero. This doesn’t mean that the impact is large. In fact, the researchers note that the impact is small.
  • The 100-point scale may produce some weird results. I’m not faulting the choice of the researchers. Any time you measure citizens opinions you’re going to get some kind of mess. There’s a lot of room between 0 and 100 and how voters locate themselves between those two extremes may vary greatly from person to person (and even from moment to moment). When you ask people to pull numbers out of the air, you need to be careful about evaluating their meaning. If I were the “average” Republican voter and my response shifted from 36 to 40 after seeing the Perry ad–what would that mean in terms of actual voting behavior?

There’s a vigorous debate in political science about the effectiveness of negative ads. However, most campaign consults are absolutely sure that attack ads work and voters aren’t giving them much reason to doubt that.

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Failing a pop quiz

Like many Texans, Farouk Shami can not name Texas’ comptroller or attorney general. Admittedly, I’m terrible with names. However, Shami should have been embarrassed when he up blank on the names of both Comptroller Susan Combs and Attorney General Greg Abbott during a meeting with the editorial board of the Austin American-Statesman. According to the Austin-American Statesman, Shami’s campaign pointed out that most Texans can’t name this officials (probably true) and that the meeting with the editorial board was like a police interrogation (probably true–but get used to it). However, most Texans aren’t on the ballot for governor and are not asking to lead the state.

Knowing names is not always the most important thing about politics. However, if you haven’t spent enough time digging through the state’s finances to see Susan Combs’ name or and over again, you’re not doing your homework. Knowing the name is a symptom of a bigger problem. If you haven’t watched the government closely enough to know all the key players–maybe you’re not ready to head the government.

Shami has revealed a weakness. However, Texans have occasionally shown a fondness for political newcomers.

To his credit, Shami isn’t dodging editorial board meetings like Perry.

Previewing the 2010 governor’s race

The end of 2009 is a good time to take stock of he 2010 governor’s race which looks a classic Texas political showdown featuring struggle for control of the majority party and a minority party struggling for credibility. Over the last two decades the two parties have swapped roles in this little drama. The names of the parties have changed places but some things have not changed.

At the moment, a lot of people are anxious to declare the race over. This will be big news to those Texans who hadn’t even started looking at the candidates yet. However, numerous “experts” from around the state have decided that they know what voters are going to do. I’m going to give voters a few more weeks. After all, I’m old enough to remember Bill Clements’ surprise victory in 1978 (not that anyone around the Hutchison camp would remember this race) and people telling the Democrats that they shouldn’t even bother to field a presidential candidate in 1992 .

The Republican field

The GOP race has its roots in the 2006 race when Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison decided not to return to Texas to challenge Governor Rick Perry in the Republican primary. KBH offered Perry another undisturbed four years while expecting him to be finished with the governor’s office by 2010. Her early declaration for 2010 made clear that after four years of waiting she was ready to dive in.

There are a lot of restless Republicans in Texas and the struggle for the future of the party will be intense. Many Republicans see the loss of the 2008 presidential election as evidence that the party needs to reach out toward the middle. Others see believe that the party needs to more to the right. The results is that Texas will see a battle for the heart and soul of the GOP. This is going to bring even more attention to the Republican gubernatorial primary.

The polls may not always tell us much about who is going to win the GOP primary. The race is going to be dynamic and turnout will be crucial. It will be hard to predict who is going to show up with the primary. Perry has made a bid to drive a wedge between Kay Bailey Hutchison and the Republican base. Some elements of the base don’t look fondly on Perry’s vision of the Trans Texas Corridor so he will continue to have to work hard to win over many conservatives. The “Tea Party” crowd is neither monolithic or reliably Republican.

Texas Republicans were treated to an early Perry endorsement from Alaska governor Sarah Palin. Palin was sufficiently impressed with her own star power to believe that Texans care about an Alaska governor’s view of Texas to offer up her endorsement a full year in advance. KBH was endorsed by Dick Cheney. That may have given comfort to a few conservatives, but such endorsements are really lost in the very personal battle between KBH and Perry.

Debra Medina may be a factor. I think she’ll be picking up the pieces as Perry and KHB fight. She has three problems: First, everyone’s seems to be competing for the same slice of the GOP. Second, she and her campaign are not as polished as her better-known rivals. Third, she has not been taken seriously by most media. This has to be insulting given the rest of the field. Overall, Medina may have been more consistently conservative and civil than Perry or KBH, but she’s an unknown candidate that has a lot of ground to make up in a race where Perry and KBH are sucking most of the oxygen out of the room.

The Democrats

Bill White as the Democrats Christmas giftThe Democrat’s chances of winning are slim. They haven’t won state-wide office since 1994. However, the UT/Texas Tribune poll showed Perry leading KBH by 12 points also showed Perry barely leading a generic Democrat. While Perry’s campaign scoffed that their guy does better running against “real people,” the showing reflects a real weakness on Perry’s part that can’t be overlooked.

Bill White‘s switch from the US Senate race to the governor’s race was the big news for Democrats this the fall. He immediately become the Democratic frontrunner–not that tough of a chore. He does have a strong base in Houston and he is a smart and hard-working candidate. He knows how to raise money and stay on message. However, covering the basics is not enough for a Texas Democrat now. He’s going to need some way of reaching beyond Democrats state-wide.

Kinky Friedman would have offered up some entertainment while only posing a minor threat. Most Texans had already made up their mind that Kinky wasn’t  serious enough to run the state. Oddly enough, he might have been an asset to the Democrats by (1) getting people to watch the Democratic race and (2) making the other Democrats look more serious by comparison.

Houston hair care executive Farouk Shami (Let the the headline fun begin: “A Candidate to Dye For“) will spend $10 million of his own money and prove that spending doesn’t always win votes. I don’t know much about Shami but I don’t think his style will work with Texas voters. I’ve already seen on-line rants about letting “Muslins” take over Texas. Felix Alvarado is a public school teacher and veteran.

Do the Democrats have a chance of winning? Only if the Republicans become erratic, arrogant, and irrelevant. So… yes. It did not seem possible last summer. Perry’s inherent weakness is that he’s been in office so long. Texans are not comfortable with one person holding power for long.

That covers some of the basics. Now, a little editorializing:

God help us!

Rick Perry cartoon

KBH tries to make Perry a cartoon

Seriously, what the heck is wrong with politics in this state?

Usually, candidates launch their campaign with excitement, brilliance, and the promise of a new way. Perry and Hutchison are experienced and (had been) been well-liked. Out of the gate… They already act like bitter losers. Is there anything new (except attacks on each other) coming out of these campaigns?

Some of you might remember when Ted Kennedy’s campaign for president fizzled when he seemed unable to give any reason why he wanted to be president. Teddy just seemed to feel that it was his time and he hadn’t thought seriously about why he wanted or deserved the job.  He made Jimmy Carter look positively brilliant for a while in 1980.

Perry and KBH’s campaigns seem to be driven by a four key factors:

  1. They don’t like each other.
  2. They both feel entitled to the office.
  3. They’re not President Obama.
  4. They really don’t like each other.
Terrance and Phillip

A summary of the Perry-Hutchison debate so far

The sad thing is that both candidates are certainly capable of much better. Both have won state-wide office. Both have demonstrated some real leadership in the past.

Scooby Doo is scared

Frozen by fear

Both Perry and KBH seem traumatized by the criticism that they received when they went one inch beyond “the base.” They now refuse to say anything that might offend anyone in the base of the party (and this is a base that is easily offended).  His plans were overly ambitious and some of the details weren’t pretty, but I give Perry credit for at least considering a new approach Texas’ transportation problems. The Trans Texas Corridor may have been a too bold and a little careless in some aspects, but it addressed a problem and demonstrated some real vision. Perry looked beyond the next few years and tried to address transportation needs for the coming decades. Now he’s looking only at the 2010 primary and  seems to be hoping that Texans will forget about all about TTC. Senator Hutchison has worked with a variety of people all over Washington (isn’t working with people a good thing for a governor?) and taken on all kinds of problems. Now, faced with some criticism about compromise votes that were too moderate she has retreated into groveling before the GOP base.

Perry does talk about the business climate in Texas. However, he generally reverts to attacks on Washington and it will be hard to see what his plan for Texas is until he quits blaming Washington for everything. Perry looked especially foolish in the early days of the Obama administration when it was clear to most of us that almost everything he was complaining about in Washington was the product of the Bush administration. Perry needs to show his respect for George W. Bush. He can’t afford Barbara Bush emerging from retirement to give him a lesson in manners.

On the Democratic side, the Democrats aren’t demonstrating any ability to cash in on the Republican’s problems. The constant shuffling of their candidates suggests that they’re more interested in playing for the win than stepping into the roles they’re equipped for. Bill White is undoubtedly the guy to beat and some Democrats are excited by him. However, his  appeal seems limited and many Democrats like him because he’s the best chance to beat Perry. That may fire up the Democrats. It may not fire up independents. Bill White is not that interesting. So far he hasn’t demonstrated any great strengths that will allow him to win the hearts of many Republicans.

Who is to blame?

Draco MalfoyBlame must always fall on the candidates. However, we shouldn’t overlook the complete failure of the campaign staffs to tell these candidates how silly they look. The campaign offices must be staffed with people who so adore their candidate that they can’t imagine why anyone wouldn’t already know why they deserves to be governor. Perry’s campaign has succeeded in making him look like nothing more than an opportunist. KBH’s campaign could best be described as an invisibility cloak–you see the mud splatter on the prissy Malfoy boy’s hair, but you can’t see where it came from (excuse the Harry Potter reference). We enjoy seeing someone with privilege humbled but that doesn’t mean we approve of the mud-slinging.

One general rule of campaigns is that you avoid throwing mud in a three-way race. Perry and KBH should drive Republicans to Medina. Her somewhat understated style might start looking good next to the antics of others and she might look like the  most viable grownup on the ballot. What would conservatives be losing by voting for her? They could wash their hands of Perry/KBH while sticking to their conservative guns. Neither our Governor or Senator has recently shown any leadership that comes from those years of experience they claim. If leading the Texas GOP into the 2010 election only requires spouting conservative rhetoric, why not choose Medina who has been doing that most consistently?

I think that the bad news is that the campaign has brought out the worst in these people. The good news is that they’re unlikely to get worse over the rest of the campaign and whoever wins this race will govern more effectively than they have campaigned.

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Update: The Dallas Morning News has summed up the race to come with an article headlined: “Expect low blows, high volume from Perry, Hutchison.” That sounds about right.

Writers Block

The Texas Tribune is reporting that Paul Burka has been blocked from asking questions in the gubernatorial debate on January 14Texas Monthly has now withdrawn their sponsorship of the debate. The objection to Burka came from the campaign of Kay Bailey Hutchison because: “He’s got his mind made up on the race.” The Texas Tribune article details all of Burka’s comments about the KBH campaign.

I’ve been reading Burka’s writing on Texas politics since I was in college. I often disagree with his analysis, but I always find it interesting and worthwhile. Let me offer up a few points in his defense:

  1. At the beginning of this campaign there were numerous comments on his blog about his alleged fondness for KBH and his dislike of Rick Perry. Suddenly, he’s too anti-Hutchison to even be allowed ask questions? Burka has challenged all sides and the fact that everyone has been unhappy suggests that Burka is doing a thorough job.
  2. Some posters are complaining about the liberal bias of Texas Monthly. That may be true of the magazine overall. However, Burka defended/supported George W. Bush (long after many “Republicans”) and has offered some very strong indictments of the Democrats in Texas. I’ve seen Burka accused of every kind of bias imaginable. These complaints generally have more to do with people not wanting to hear their heroes criticized and not having good answers to his questions.
  3. One rationale for excluding him is that he’s an “opinion writer.” Burka does express opinions. Most writers do. However, he focuses offering analysis of political skill. Burka’s blogging is not ideological.
    Further, I wouldn’t call Burka’s analysis of KBH’s campaign “opinion.” It seems clear that KBH’s campaign is underperforming. In fact, is anyone reporting anything different? Personally, I think Burka could be one of KBH’s best friends in this campaign. He is offering a clear warning that the campaign is going nowhere and is need of an overhaul. The campaign staff apparently isn’t going to admit when they’re doing a bad job. The problem is: Burka is right. Efforts to keep Burka off that panel make the Senator look petty or fearful.
  4. Finally, Burka is an institution in this state. Maybe he is overrated. Maybe he is biased. Maybe he is pining away for KBH. However, he’s widely read by inside and outside of government and all over the political spectrum.  You can’t run from him and you’re not ready to run this state if you’re not ready to face the questions he poses.

So, answer Burka’s questions.

Since Debra Medina has been denied a spot in the debate, maybe Burka should interview her. Then we could see two things Perry and KBH are running from all in the same room.

Burka on Term Limits

Paul Burka has an an article on term limits for Texas governors in the latest edition of Texas Monthly. A lot of readers of BurkaBlog rant about him (but they keep on reading). Burka has been covering Texas politics for decades. I don’t always agree with him, but there’s no doubt that he knows the ropes.

Term limits is going to be an issue in the campaign and it’s an issue with a troubled past for both parties. Republicans have often been associated with term limits–usually before entering office. Like many Republicans who came to Washington during the rise of the rise of her party in the 1990s, Kay Bailey Hutchison entered the US Senate as an advocate of term limits but will not leave Washington with the same level of enthusiasm.  She’s currently endorsing term limits for Texas Governors.

I like Burka’s argument (without agreeing with it) because he links the need for term limits to the evolution of the powers of the governorship. Many term limits advocates rely on a more simplistic, knee-jerk reaction to power. The problem with the simplistic argument is that you can learn to abuse power quickly and enter office every bit as corrupt an a seasoned veteran. Burka’s analysis is much more realistic and addresses specific powers of the Texas governorship. It could be a great starting point for a class discussion or written assignment.

The Battle for the Aggie Vote

While many people in Aggie-land are getting ready for the annual football game against UT, some in the Aggie nation are thinking about political battles. The Bryan-College Station Eagle has a story about the tough choices that A&M grads face as Rick Perry seeks re-election with Phil Gramm backing Kay Bailey Hutchison.

Thoughts on the Texas Tribune Poll

The Texas Tribune launched this week and one of their first big moments in the spotlight of Texas politics came from the results of their poll that showed that Rick Perry lead Kay Bailey Hutchison by 12 points. That was a pretty interesting result that has left people with plenty to argue about.

There was another result that CQ Politics’ Poll Tracker pointed out after the second set of results were released. I went back to the original release from the poll and pulled together this summary chart of job approval (combining those who “approve” and “strongly approve”):

Job Approval in November 209

It seems pretty clear that while Perry should feel pretty good about his lead in the Republican primary, no one is very popular in Texas. For example, Perry’s job approval (36%) is lower by his disapproval (44%). While Perry trumpeted that the elections in Virginia and New Jersey as validation of his view of Washington (while overlooking the congressional race in New York), back home Texans were thinking that they liked their President a little more than their Governor.