Mock all you want.

Are Republican Dress Ads Trolling Liberals?

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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Judging by my Twitter feed, a lot of political science professors are showing their classes those new ads from the College Republican National Committee that compare gubernatorial candidates to wedding dresses. They report that the response of their students echoes what liberal bloggers have been saying: the ads are awful. When I asked one prof whether the ads' supposed target audience, young women, had the same response, she answered:

Yes. Isn't it interesting? Exactly the target group. My students self-identify as Conservative Republicans 22/24 in the class. ... They found it insulting. I pressed them on it b/c ad buys suggest that the ad could have played well on entertainment shows. ... But, they were sure that it was offensive.

Caveats apply: we're talking here about a handful of professors. And an ad that students find offensive in the classroom may nevertheless influence voters. In any case, it's unlikely that a single ad will make much difference. Still, between these reactions and my critique yesterday, I'm prepared to say the ads are a disaster.

But they may reveal something important about Republican dysfunction. What if the target audience isn't young women, but the media and liberals -- and the negative response is exactly what the College Republicans wanted?

I'm not talking about the old campaign-operative trick of loudly announcing an ad that doesn't have funding to get it placed, in hopes that the message will get free exposure from the media.

Instead, I'm referring to a strategy to deliberately produce something that liberals will call offensive. Why? Because both rank-and-file and many elite-level Republicans love a martyr at the hands of liberals and the "liberal media." Getting criticized is a good way for College Republicans to gain status within their party. That's probably good for them institutionally (the attention could be used to raise money, for example); it's also probably good for individuals who want to build party careers. My guess is that being associated with ads that bomb with voters but get attacked (or even just mocked) by liberals is far better for both the organization and the people involved than making ads that modestly help a few candidates.

If I'm right about this strategy, however, (and for more evidence, see the career path of Sarah Palin, among others), the cumulative effect is highly dysfunctional for the party. Large democracies work in part because the political parties and the government respond to the wishes of citizens. But parties and the people within them can also have other incentives, including the desire to pursue their own policies or to obtain status, money, career success and influence. Under normal circumstances, all of these incentives are aligned for campaign operatives, because their careers depend on running good campaigns that allow their party to win elections by reflecting the preferences of voters.

That virtuous cycle may not be working properly within today's Republican Party

Getting that right matters because winning elections isn't always the priority for other portions of the party, such as party-aligned media: The ratings of conservative talk shows go up when there's a Democrat in the White House. Politicians can have warped incentives, too: In some cases, they can make a lot more money lobbying or in other post-elective jobs than they would by staying in office (this isn't limited to Republicans).

This doesn't mean that Republicans won't win elections, which often turn on fundamentals that have little to do with the incentives of party actors. However, it can mean that normal ties of representation between the party and its voters are weakened, and that could make it harder for a dysfunctional party to enact viable public policy. In short. a party beset by this type of of dysfunction may get elected, but it is less likely to govern well.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net