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One More Way This Presidential Year is Like No Other: Negative Ads May Not Work


Open feuding broke out this weekend between the presidential campaign of Donald Trump and Ohio’s Republican Party chairman – the most extraordinary inside-politics development in an extraordinary year. WKSU’s M.L. Schultze talked to a long-time political consultant about other ways the presidential race has defied expectations:

Political consultants like Robert Clegg are among the many declaring this election year is like no other. Clegg is president of Midwest Communications and Media, whose web site boasts it’s been “sustaining the Republic” since 1982.

After a recent conference focusing on campaigns and the law, Clegg said there is at least one bit of reassurance about the republic in this political year – the relative dearth of negative ads.

“I think the impact of quote/unquote negative campaigns is getting less and less. And I don’t think the negative ads on that presidential level this year are working all that well for either candidate because they’re too well-known, people have their opinions already formed, and that kind of campaigning only works when its complete unknowns and you form an opinion, which becomes negative because all the negatives out there first.”


But wait until 2020

“It’ll change in 2020 if we have two entirely different candidates running for president of the United States, and they’re not 95 percent known like these two were, yeah.”

He holds the Obama campaign of 2012 in Ohio as an example.

“They did a great job of forming an opinion about Mitt Romney in the minds of Ohio voters that wasn’t positive. And Mitt Romney was well-known enough because he was obviously going to be the Republican nominee, but still it wasn’t baked in. Their attitudes, their beliefs, their ideas about Mitt Romney weren’t baked in. So the Obama campaign had a time period where they could go in there and frame it their way.”

Pulling back advertising

Donald Trump has pulled back his advertising in Ohio, concentrating on the three major markets: Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati instead of spreading it to markets statewide. Clegg says that may be playing to the odds.

“He’s a unique situation obviously. Here’s a guy that ran very little if any TV during the primary race and won it pretty handily in the end.  And he looks at that -- he’s a businessman -- he looks at the result and says well, ... ‘Maybe TVs not that important.’ And maybe he was on to something because of the fact that they’re (Clinton and Trump) so well-known and their images were so baked in.”

But the strategy could be simply knowing how to market.

“He did this in all the battleground states, he ended up getting out of all the small, secondary markets, and then concentrated in money in all the large, urban DMAs. And there’s some method to that madness. In most of those states, like Florida, like Ohio, the rural areas were so strongly for him anyways that, ‘Why waste the money?”


“His problem in Ohio and in states like Florida and North Carolina were in the suburban areas around the urbans: Delaware, Licking Fairfield; up in Cleveland, it’s Geauga, Lake and Medina; in Cincinnati, it’s Butler, Warren and Clermont. That’s why he stayed on the three Cs in Ohio.”

Why Portman vs. Strickland looks a lot like Kasich vs. Strickland

Ohio’s Senate campaign between incumbent Rob Portman and former Gov. Ted Strickland has been held up as the contrast to the presidential race from many aspects, including Republican unity and wide-spread advertising.

Clegg says Portman likely surged because – though Strickland was better known originally – the ideas about him weren’t “baked in,” and that left an opening for Portman’s early attack ads to make an impression.

In addition, he lost the last time he ran statewide – upset by John Kasich in the 2010 gubernatorial race.

“When you come out of a loss, it’s not necessarily you have that large of a negative image ... but you obviously had somewhat of a negative image; you ended up losing. ... And also he was in a time period where the facts were negative against him. We had a 10 percent unemployment, we had an $8 billion budget deficit. He was governor during the recession.

“So it was kind of like the perfect storm.”

And Clegg says that’s why the 2016 senatorial campaign looks a lot like the gubernatorial race of 2010.

“A lot of the early ads against Ted Strickland were basically ads that were run at the end of the campaign by John Kasich back in 2010.”

Clegg says – again with the exception of this year’s presidential race -- you can expect that what works in one campaign will be tried in the next one.   

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