March 19, 2015

As I mentioned on Tuesday, last weekend I attended a conference on the 2014 elections at St. Anselm’s College. In addition to papers on the Republican advantage in the House and Democratic advantage for the presidency I discussed Tuesday, some other insights caught my attention that apply closer to home. First, political science shows a lingering disadvantage to African American candidates – but there may be a way to ameliorate this. Second, to no surprise, SuperPAC ads seem to be more negative than party and candidate ads, with consequences for democratic legitimacy.

Professor David Redlawsk presented a paper on “emotive racism” – “the combination of racial attitudes and emotional responses to political candidates.” Redlawsk and colleagues studied the 2013 and 2014 elections of Cory Booker to US Senate from New Jersey. They measured racial resentment among whites toward Booker and how they were moderated by positive emotional messages from his campaign. As expected racial resentment impacted Booker’s approval ratings and thermometer scores as did negative emotions like anger and fear. But positive emotions like enthusiasm and hope improved Booker’s scores. When the scholars included both symbolic racism and emotions in their candidate evaluations they found that emotions moderate the effect of racist attitudes.

This was an update of work done on the presidential campaigns of Barack Obama in which political scientists estimate a three percent disadvantage for Obama based on racial attitudes. But this disadvantage was cushioned in part by the positive emotions generated by Obama’s campaign --  hope, change, yes we can. Redlawsk’s work is useful to any campaign dealing with the difficulties presented by negative racial attitudes. (Such as any optimistic, upbeat African-American former state chief executive contemplating a future run for the presidency).

The other paper of interest was by Professor Dante Scala and Tegan O’Neill of UNH and analyzed mail received by thirty volunteers in New Hampshire during last years Brown-Shaheen race. Scala and O’Neill performed content analysis on mailings and found that SuperPAC mail was overwhelmingly negative. Democratic Party pieces were more contrast or positive in tone. Republican Party pieces were more contrast or negative in tone.

What struck me though was Professor Scala’s remark that candidates and parties are less likely to be negative because they have reputations to protect. But SuperPACs have no reputation to protect – most people already regard them so poorly they can’t sink any further.

Now this is truly depressing because classically the speaker’s reputation informs the trustworthiness of the message. This goes back to the lessons of Aristotle’s Rhetoric. Trust is essential in political dialogue but Scala’’s work suggests the messages we get from SuperPACs are suspect merely based on the messenger.

This in turn brings me back to the 2014 gubernatorial campaign. A Republican Super PAC ran an ad suggesting that Martha Coakley was responsible for the deaths of children under the care of DCF. An editorial in The Berkshire Eagle newspaper properly termed the ad “loathsome even by SuperPAC standards.” There is nothing else to check such work though and the SuperPAC, as noted, hardly cares about its reputation. I leave you to contemplate what the capacity to deliver unlimited lies to a public via the television set implies for the functioning of democratic dialogue.

So there you have it. Positive emotions can moderate feelings of racial resentment. And SuperPACs exist to deliver negative emotions.

Cory Booker, SuperPACs, Barack Obama

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