As I hope many of you are aware, the midterm elections are fast approaching. And as we slog through the final month of the campaign, Americans across the country are being treated to countless political ads attempting to swing Independent voters and rally party bases against opponents. As we mentioned earlier this month, candidates, parties, and outside groups have spent over 275 million dollars on television ads thus far this year. But as we get down to the wire, candidates, parties, and groups are even more desperate to maintain leads and/or close the gap with competitors—the gloves are coming off (not that they were really on to begin with); suddenly, your nightly news reports are interrupted by an incredible number of attack ads.
With so many attacks being flung back and forth in House, Senate, and Gubernatorial races across the country, it can really be a challenge for candidates to stand out. Even in the world of attack ads, this has been quite a year of incredible accusations–including one set to Disney’s “<href=”#26tyvai”>Let it Go.” Democratic Senator Mark Begich ran an ad claiming that a couple was murdered as a result of the light sentences his opponent had allowed as attorney general. A Republican candidate in Georgia ran an ad claiming his Democratic opponent “funded organizations linked to terrorists.” In a year like this, when you read in the Washington Post that a senate candidate’s ad is “one of the nastiest campaign ads you will ever see,” it really makes you stop and wonder what could possibly be worse.
The answer: a new ad from a long-shot Democratic candidate for governor in Texas, Senator Wendy Davis, attacking her highly-favored-to-win and wheelchair-bound Republican opponent, Attorney General Greg Abbot, and bringing the tragic incident that paralyzed him into the political debate.
This very personal attack may give some of us pause, but as Attorney General Abbot correctly pointed out in an appearance on Fox News, “if she wants to attack a guy in a wheelchair, that’s her prerogative.” That’s because these ads are protected speech under the First Amendment. As a result, there are very few guidelines around the content of political advertisements. So chances are that even if it sounds like it shouldn’t be allowed—it probably is.
There are, of course, some legal requirements. The one people are probably most familiar with is the statement at the end of these ads: “I’m so-and-so and I approve this message.” The FEC (Federal Election Commission) requires that any ad run by a candidate for federal office on television or radio carry an “audio statement” spoken by the candidate that identifies the candidate and states that he or she has approved the message. Similar messages are required for parties and committees that run ads: “The such-and-such committee is responsible for the content of this advertising.”
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) also requires broadcast stations and cable television systems to provide equal access to candidates, meaning that cable companies and broadcasters are allowed to not run political ads, but if they allow one candidate to advertise on their channel then all the candidates have to be allowed to do so under similar terms. As most stations don’t want to risk losing out on their piece of the 275 million dollar election spending on television, many consent to letting their airways be used by both sides.
This brings us to probably the biggest limitation on political ads. Federal law (enforced by the FCC) regulates the content that can be shown on television. There are three main categories of restricted content: “obscene,” “indecent,” and “profane.” You can go here if you are curious about the technical definitions and corresponding regulations. In case you were wondering what political ads would look like if these restrictions weren’t in place, you need look no further than the ads created for Senator Mitch McConnell and his Democratic opponent, Alison Lundergan Grimes, by comedian John Oliver and his team at <href=”#series/video&assetID=GOROSTGP43095?videoMode=embeddedVideo?showSpecialFeatures=false/”>Last Week Tonight back in May.
While we can endlessly debate the merits of having largely unregulated political advertisements, the fact remains: attack ads work. And perhaps the question isn’t why do we let candidates run these types of ads, but rather why they are so effective at changing our opinions? For those that have ever wondered why campaigns don’t focus more on issues, it comes down to campaigns attempting to achieve the greatest impact with their limited resources (ok, not all that limited anymore but you understand my point). Attack ads go viral and draw our attention, as well as a ton of media attention, which can give campaigns a boost. Could less controversial, issue-oriented ads be as effective? Probably not. So I guess one question to think about is this: Are candidates wrong to run effective attack ads, or are we in the wrong for letting it affect the way we vote? Or a little of both?