Saturday, August 02, 2008

The McCain Attack Ads: What Effect?

Seeking to get a measure response to the latest barrage of McCain attack ads, the McClatchey newspaper organization collected responses from a large focus group of 316 Americans.

The two main findings were interesting and so ambivalent that they seemed contradictory.

The strongest finding was that the group as a whole had negative reactions to the ads.

"We are not sure whether the negative emotions expressed by viewers were related to their feelings about either candidate or about the way in which the message was delivered," said Glenn Kessler, president and CEO of HCD Research. "However, we do know that the ad did not move voters and they expressed negative emotions after viewing the ad."

The emotions most felt by Republicans while watching the ad were "disturbing" (35 percent), "skepticism" (16 percent) and "sadness" (10 percent); Democrats reported "skepticism" (44 percent), "anger" (24 percent) and "disturbing" (14 percent); Independents reported "skepticism" (41 percent), "disturbing" (18 percent) and "anger" (18 percent).

It's best to read these numbers against the background of measures concerning how much voters like the candidates--i.e., their favorability ratings. John McCain has a strong favorability average of 52.3 in the latest RealClearPolitics "poll of polls" and that favorability rating would be resilient because McCain has been a prominent Senator for the last decade.

I've argued in other posts for Red State Impressions and WEKU that McCain's favorability rating is the strongest element in his candidacy and is what allows McCain to be doing as well as he's doing in a rough environment for Republicans. Given the extent of the negative feelings about McCain's recent ads, it appears that McCain is putting his own favorability ratings at a great deal of risk in order to make voters more skeptical of Obama. In other words, McCain may be playing with fire with these negative ads.

The next question is whether McCain is getting any results from his risky ads. The McClatchey study claims that the answer is a "yes," but that claim is highly questionable.
. . . the results that may have been most telling were the changes in whom the participants would vote for and suggested that such advertising could have an impact, especially among independents. Before viewing the ad, 75 percent of the Democrats said they would vote for Obama. After viewing the ad, that percentage was 72, while undecideds rose from 13 to 15 percent and those favoring other candidates rose from 3 to 4 percent. The number who said they would vote for McCain, however, remained unchanged at 9 percent. Similar results were recorded for Republicans and Independents. Republican support for Obama dropped from 8 to 6 percent, while McCain's percentage remained unchanged at 74 percent. Undecideds rose from 16 to 18 percent, however. Only among independents did the drop in Obama's percentage, from 44 to 43 percent, accrue to McCain, whose support went from 33 to 34 percent.
But these numbers are not significant enough to say that there was a change of opinion away from Obama. The survey appears to have a roughly equal number of Democrats, Republicans, and Independents at 106-107, meaning that a swing of 1% pretty much represents one person changing their mind. Of the 320 group members then, only 1 switched their preference from Obama to McCain while 6 switched from Obama to undecided. Given that the survey was not random and that the 2.1% change falls within the margin of error for even the best polls, it is best to say that there was no change in opinion.

Obviously, if McCain's current wave of negative advertising is able to move public opinion by 2%, that will be significant in a close election. But the McClatchey study does not justify that conclusion.

It's somewhat more significant that McCain's ad did not provoke any members of the group into switching away from McCain himself. However, given that large majorities of Democrats, Independents, and Republicans had negative feelings about the ads themselves, McCain is running the risk that negative feelings about McCain's ads will ultimately translate into negative feelings about McCain.

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