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Negative Political Ads Are Annoying But Effective


Ask almost anyone about negative political ads, you'll likely get a negative response. They're widely disliked, yet campaigns keep airing them over and over and over again. That's especially true right now in the state of Wisconsin, ahead of next week's Republican primary.

NPR's David Schaper reports that as hated as these ads are, they are seen as effective.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Flip on the TV anywhere in Wisconsin this week and it won't be long until you hear this...


SCHAPER: That ad, and a slew of others from the pro-Mitt Romney superPAC Restore Our Future, are airing constantly in Wisconsin.

Recently, a superPAC supporting Rick Santorum has been trying to hit back.


SCHAPER: The Red, White and Blue Fund has spent almost half a million dollars on ads attacking Romney in Wisconsin in advance of next week's primary. But Restore Our Future has spent more than five times that amount - over $2.7 million on mailings, robocalls, and of course radio and TV ads.

KATHY MCHENRY: You're just hearing, you know, negative, negative, negative, negative...

SCHAPER: Kathy McHenry is trying to enjoy her lunch at Maggie's Restaurant and Bar in Onalaska, Wisconsin.

MCHENRY: And then this is how great I am, so you know, you should only believe me and - because this other guy is only going to tell you a lie. Well, you know, what makes me think that you're not lying to me too? You know, I hate political ads.

SCHAPER: Her friend, Penny Szobody of Medary, Wisconsin, agrees.

PENNY SZOBODY: I turn my TV off, I won't even listen. They're too annoying. There's no reason for all the backbiting. Why don't they tell us something that's true? Why don't they tell us something they're going to do instead of picking each other apart?

SCHAPER: And both Szobody and McHenry say the ads don't affect how they vote.

SZOBODY: Apparently it's doing some sort of good or they wouldn't do it; that's like any advertising. But we're wondering who it influences, really. Not me.

MCHENRY: And I would have to say it doesn't influence me either. If it does anything, it turns me off, because I've had it.

SCHAPER: At a table nearby, Angela Czerwinski of Onalaska says she hates negative political ads too. But can they affect how she votes?

ANGELA CZERWINSKI: Hmm. Well, I would be lying if I said no. I think, yeah, to a point, but I would still, I would do my homework aside from just listening to what's on TV or...

SCHAPER: Joe Heim is a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. He says when people say they don't pay attention to the charges and countercharges in political ads and robocalls...

JOE HEIM: Don't believe it. People complain about 'em but they listen to 'em.

SCHAPER: And as much as people are sick of all the negative ads, Heim says the campaigns will keep on airing more and more of them through Tuesday, because they work.

HEIM: I think they're effective. When people are undecided or they're not real strongly committed towards one candidate or the other, they can be very effective.

SCHAPER: But Heim also says that most of the ads airing in Wisconsin target the base of the Republican Party. Wisconsin has an open primary that will likely draw a lot of independent and some Democratic voters. And he says the millions of dollars being spent on attack ads won't be nearly as effective on them.

David Schaper, NPR News in La Crosse, Wisconsin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Schaper is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, based in Chicago, primarily covering transportation and infrastructure, as well as breaking news in Chicago and the Midwest.
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