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Published October 11 2012

Forum editorial: We hate ads, but they work

If everyone “hates” the blizzard of political advertising on television, why is there so much of it? If everyone “hates” the TV spots, should it not follow that politicians are wasting their money?

It’s not that simple.

The “hate” viewers speak of is selective. They hate the other candidate’s ad, but are OK with their candidate’s stuff. Democrats find Republican ads appalling; Republicans feel the same way about Democrats’ ads.

But the biggest reason the ads keep coming, in particular in North Dakota’s hotly contested U.S. Senate race, is that they work. So-called negative advertising moves the polls, and if the polls move in a candidate’s favor, it means more money for the campaign, which means more money for more negative ads, which means – well, you get the picture.

Don’t believe it? Clear evidence of the effects of plowing big money into political ads came out of the recently concluded Republican primary season. When Newt Gingrich spent more than Mitt Romney in one state’s primary, he won. When Romney woke up and spent a lot more in the next few states, he pummeled Gingrich, effectively putting an end to the former House speaker’s campaign. It was the money and the ad blitz, not the quality of or the differences in their messages.

The North Dakota Senate campaign is on pace to set a record for political advertising expenditures, maybe as much as

$11 million before it’s over. That estimate includes not only direct campaign money but also the big dollars coming into the state from super PACs and other “independent” groups on both sides. While

$11 million isn’t a big deal in other states, it’s unprecedented in North Dakota.

And why? The Senate race has risen to national importance because it’s a tossup. That’s a surprise to Republican analysts, many of whom expected red-state North Dakota to be a slam dunk for their candidate, Congressman Rick Berg, of Fargo, and a pickup of a Republican senator. Democrat Heidi Heitkamp, of Mandan, former attorney general, has run a focused and disciplined campaign that has put Berg on the defensive. At this point, the race is too close to call.

The result is an escalating onslaught of advertising that will intensify in the remaining weeks before Election Day, even as partisans have already made up their minds, and many of them have already voted. Campaign operatives hope a barrage of negative ads will move enough nonaligned voters into their camp to squeeze out a close win. And be assured, it will be negative because negative works.

Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper’s Editorial Board.