Payne & Domke: As Ads Attack, Candidates Must Take The Long View

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So far, the Republican Governors Association has spent approximately $1 million to run three ads attacking the independent candidate, state Treasurer Timothy Cahill. Gov. Deval Patrick said negative ads are poisoning the race and voters deserve better.

"If that is the shape of things to come, then the voters are going to be so turned off and tuned out from this election by the time of the election that nobody will care about the outcome," Patrick said.

The Republican candidate, Charles Baker, has said he is not responsible for the ads and pointed out it would be against the law for him to coordinate with the RGA.

WBUR’s political analysts — Democrat Dan Payne and Republican Todd Domke — offer their thoughts on the ads and how they've affected the race so far.

Dan Payne (D): Baker has learned the law of unintended consequences. When RGA attacked Cahill, Cahill lost support — but Patrick gained it, increasing his poll lead over Baker.

Net benefit for Baker: not much, aside from pushing Cahill back down into third place. In a perfect world for Baker, this is what would continue to happen throughout the race, so that he could emerge as the main alternative to Patrick.

I know, of course, that Baker or any candidate can’t collude to have a third party affect a campaign. That’s against the law. But if he didn’t want the TV spots to run, he could have said so publicly –- but he didn’t.

The RGA used the same trick in New Jersey, attacking an independent candidate to help the Republican Chris Christie win against a very unpopular Gov. John Corzine. It's been said that these tactics simply won't work in Massachusetts. I don’t know who those analysts are or what chemicals they’ve been exposed to, but I don’t buy that negative attacks don’t work here.

The RGA has shown no desire to quit, now that they’ve launched a new stink bomb against Cahill.-- Political analyst Dan Payne (D)

Patrick is nowhere near as unpopular as Corzine was, so I’m not sure we’re going to see the same outcome. But the RGA has shown no desire to quit, now that they’ve launched a new stink bomb against Cahill.

Cahill himself moved way out into right field several weeks ago when he attacked the state and federal health care plans. He even went on Glenn Beck’s Fox TV talk show and got some national attention for attacking the health care plan that Massachusetts passed, which had been the model for the federal plan.

But he has to run on ideas, not just criticism. He has to show that he’s more than a one-trick pony. What else can he do besides knock the status quo? One thing he might do to give himself some running room is resign from the Treasury office. He’d be free to campaign full-time and he could claim that he doesn’t want to take tax dollars while he’s running for another office.

That’s all the free advice I’m giving out today.

Meanwhile, Republican Baker is telling voters that he's "had enough" of the way State House politics are currently running. But that slogan is hardly as original as Baker would have us believe. It was the 1946 slogan for Congressional elections for the Republican Party which had been out of power in Congress since 1930. The slogan asked voters if they had "had enough" of the Democrats.

In 2006, Democratic candidates for Congress used “Had Enough?” in speeches and on their campaign websites.

Finally, to discuss the governor. I don't believe that because of the RGA attacks, all of the voters Cahill lost went to incumbent Patrick. The governor finally had a decent run of his own, after being at the center of the story on the water main break, which lasted far fewer days than originally feared.

But let me remind our readers that Michael Dukakis was governor during the great 1978 nor' easter, and he was on TV in his sweater offering guidance and reassurance for many days. Seven months later, he lost a primary to a well funded newcomer, Ed King.

When you're an incumbent, voters want to know, 'What have you done for me lately?' In Patrick’s case, a big factor has been that, for the first time in a long while, there hasn'’t been any bad economic news about the state. There wasn’t exactly good news, but certainly nothing was bad. Sometimes, when you're an incumbent in an executive job, the absence of bad news can be good news.

Todd Domke (R): The negative ads the RGA has run against Cahill seem to have worked. According to the latest Rasmussen poll last week, Cahill lost about nine points, dropping from 23 percent to 14 percent of the vote. And Cahill’s negative rating went way up, as only 6 percent rated him “very favorable,” compared to 18 percent who rated him “very unfavorable." It was a close three-man race before — now it looks like a two-and-a-half-man race.

I did a little research to see how Christy Mihos was faring in the polls at this same point four years ago, when he was the independent against Republican Kerry Healey and Patrick. His poll numbers in May 2006 were a bit higher than Cahill’s are now. Mihos ended up with only 7 percent of the vote. It looks like Cahill is in the same boat — and it’s leaking.

Patrick has been the main beneficiary of the Cahill collapse, as he went up 10 points in the poll. That was surprising. The message of the negative ads is that Cahill is as bad as Patrick. One would think that message would drive conservatives away from Cahill — in which case, logically, conservatives should prefer Baker. But perhaps it drove moderate independents and moderate Democrats away from Cahill, and they've felt more comfortable with Patrick.

"Negative ads are effective if voters feel they are learning something useful; they think that’s positive. Of course the candidate who is attacked doesn’t see anything positive about it."-- Political analyst Todd Domke (R)

Cahill’s failure to counter the negative ads looks like a mistake now, but in a three-man race we can’t be sure. We don’t know what the other candidates will do — that could change the equation. For example, if the RGA unloads on Patrick and he drops in the polls, and then the national Democratic Party and unions come in and unload on Baker, it could turn into an all-out mudslinging contest. Then Cahill will say, “Do you see how the two parties are out of control? We need an independent to clean up.” Then he’d be happy that he conserved his $3 million to use in the final weeks.

Part of the RGA strategy is to force Cahill to spend his money early, knowing that, as an independent, he couldn’t raise much money so he wouldn’t have cash at the end, allowing Baker to be the only credible alternative to Patrick.

For Cahill to get back in contention he has to be patient and persistent, hoping the other two attack each other in personal ways that backfire and drive up their negatives. Then he’ll say to the 51 percent who are not registered Democrats or Republicans, "I am like the bronze statue on top of the Rhode Island State House, 'the independent man.' "

Cahill needs more imaginative tactics and clever ads to make up for a lack of money. His $3 million should keep him in double-digits — he’s got stature as treasurer and it’s a good year to be an independent — but if he can’t get back to 25 percent, he becomes a spoiler, not a contender.

Negative ads work if they are persuasive, targeted and timely. In the recent special Senate election they didn’t work for outside groups attacking Scott Brown because they came too late — after he'd already defined himself — and because the ads were so ugly and desperate. The RGA ads aren’t very appealing, either, but they use headlines to convey the idea that Cahill is a big-spender and old school politician, rather than a frugal, “good government” reformer. Negative ads are effective if voters feel they are learning something useful; they think that’s positive. Of course the candidate who is attacked doesn’t see anything positive about it.

In Massachusetts, negative advertising will be a growth industry from now until November. It’ll be a stimulus program for television stations, but not so stimulating for voters.


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