Axelrod, Trudeau and Attack Ads

So, for those of you who missed it, after Justin Trudeau (son of the late, venerated Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau) became leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, the Tories – being the Tories – went on the attack with a series of negative ads. For example:

Naturally, this offended the sensitivities of many citizens and politicos. No doubt it was ham-fisted, unsportsmanlike and pretty silly, but the outrage seems even sillier. We’ve gone through many rounds of these sorts of recriminations. We’re told that attack ads don’t work, and that they’re a blight on our nation… or something. I have never, never, been convinced of this.

Mr. Harper went guns after former Liberal leader Stephane Dion a few years ago. He won a minority government. Mr. Dion was replaced by Michael Ignatieff. The Conservatives went after Mr. Ignatieff even harder and were rewarded with a majority government. As people complain that attack ads don’t work, I’m still waiting for some evidence.

Over at Maclean’s, Aaron Wherry notes that despite claims that negative ads backfire, there really isn’t a lot of proof:

Three years ago, Nanos found that attack ads launched against Michael Ignatieff had left 65% of respondents with a more negative view of Stephen Harper. Angus Reid and Ipsos Reid also found negative impacts on the Prime Minister. Two years later, Mr. Harper had a majority mandate and Mr. Ignatieff’s political career was over.

In reviewing the latest science on campaign advertising last year, Sadie Dingfelder suggested the fears about a backlash against attack ads (at least in the United States) were dissipating, but NPR found that the evidence of effectiveness was mixed. That said, attack ads have at least one public proponent: the senior strategist for Barack Obama’s re-election campaign.

Here’s what Mr. Axelrod said:

Axelrod jumped at the opening. In a major gamble, the Obama campaign moved $65 million in advertising money that had been budgeted for September and October into June, enabling the president to unleash a series of attacks that would define Romney at a time when the Republican would have little money to respond. From Axelrod’s viewpoint, the timing was perfect. Romney had been weakened by assaults from fellow GOP candidates during the primaries. Romney alienated many Hispanics by suggesting that illegal immigrant families should “self-deport,” and he said he had been a “severely conservative” governor, hurting his strategy to move to the middle for the general election.

Maybe this time it will be different. Maybe the attacks on Justin Trudeau will backfire. If they do, however, it won’t be because attacks ads are generally a bad idea; it will be because attacking Justin Trudeau is a bad idea. If he proves sufficiently likable (and there’s a decent chance he will), the public won’t stand for the attacks. If Mr. Trudeau can’t win our hearts, we won’t care what nasty things are said about him. Actually, we’ll probably believe them.

Jonathan McLeod

Jonathan McLeod is a writer living in Ottawa, Ontario. (That means Canada.) He spends too much time following local politics and writing about zoning issues. Follow him on Twitter.

One Comment

  1. Attack ads (and especially attack ads run when there’s no election going on) are, I think, corrosive to democracy in that they turn people off of politics because it just sounds like a bunch of people talking about how terrible everyone else is.

    But they are effective, and Harper’s shown that more clearly than anyone I’ve seen. He’s destroyed two Liberal leaders with them, and his people have a talent for effectively labelling an opponent and getting that label entrenched in the public’s mind. Due to Justin’s thin political resumé and recent entry into politics, not to mention his youth, labelling him as a flake may not be overly difficult.

    Me, I’m still trying to figure out why a third-party leadership race that was a foregone conclusion from the start is taking all the media attention, while the idea of the NDP winning an election is somehow still seen as a pipe dream. If it was the NDP who had 35 seats, you can bet their leadership race wouldn’t have gotten anything like the same level of coverage. It’s like the media have decided that the Conservatives and Liberals are the two parties of Canadian politics, regardless of what the seat count and the electorate say.

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