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Jonathan Bernstein

Trump's Attack Ads Won’t Amount to Much

The president plans to activate a `Death Star’ of negative advertising. He should consult some political science first.

An aspiring Governor Tarkin.

An aspiring Governor Tarkin.

Photographer: Bryan Woolston/Getty

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Last week, President Donald Trump’s campaign signaled that an aggressive attack against former Vice President Joe Biden is coming soon. As Politico reported: “Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale hinted at the forthcoming offensive in a Thursday morning tweet calling the reelection effort a `death star’ and declaring, `In a few days we start pressing FIRE for the first time.’ ”

As pundits immediately pointed out, the original Death Stars were mainly known for getting blown up and were deployed by an evil empire, which is not normally the side a campaign wants to associate itself with. Indeed, back here on Earth, campaigns are often reluctant to admit they’re going negative; there’s a whole vocabulary of “comparison ads” designed to avoid that label.

But never mind all that. The truth is that no November campaign was ever won by advertising in May. Political scientist John Sides put it this way: “For journalists writing about the new Trump `Death Star’ ad blitz, it's imperative to discuss the research showing how quickly the effects of presidential general election advertising wear off. The impact of advertising in May on what happens in November is likely zero.”

So why do it? Mostly because they can. Presidential campaigns these days raise far more money than they can spend effectively. Even if the chances of influencing the outcome are only “likely” zero, it may still be rational to spend the money, because in a very close race any little bit is helpful. (Of course, this election may not turn out to be close, but no one can say at this point.)

That’s not all. Both bureaucratic momentum and, in some cases, profit motives can lead to more advertising. The first is probably most important. Campaigns, like any other organization, tend to reward those who show tangible results. But since campaigns don’t actually sell their “product” until Election Day, staffers will tend to favor visible actions. Ads, of course, are not only visible in a direct sense, but (like fundraising) they also tend to get discussed by the news media, which makes them even more noticeable to everyone involved in the campaign — including, of course, the candidate.

Campaign professionals do sometimes consult the academic literature, such as the research that Sides refers to showing the limited and temporary effects of campaign ads. But they also tend to buy into conventional wisdom that develops over time and that may or may not be based on any evidence. In this case, the folk wisdom says that incumbents can solidify their position by blasting the challenger with ads in the spring. That belief evolved after Bill Clinton tried the strategy during his re-election campaign in 1996, and was likely reinforced when George W. Bush ran early ads in 2004 and Barack Obama did the same in 2012. In all likelihood, though, those presidents won second terms because of sufficient peace and prosperity.

Early ads probably didn’t matter much. And they probably won’t matter this time either.

1. Julia Azari on Trump, norms and democratic values.

2. Kate Starbird, Emma Spiro and Jevin West at the Monkey Cage on how misinformation about the pandemic spreads.

3. Good Michelle Goldberg item on the missing national message on what comes next

4. Harry Enten on Biden’s polling lead.

5. And San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg makes the case for federal aid to cities and states

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