Related content: Nolan talks government spending, job creation The race for the 8th District Congressional seat is on fire. Republican Incumbent Chip Cravaack and DFL challenger, former Representative Rick Nolan are just a few points apart, with Nolan up by seven, according to a Star Tribune poll.
Aaron Brown, 33, of Itasca County is author of the blog “Minnesota Brown,” columnist and former editor of the Hibbing Daily Tribune and radio commentator for 91.7 KAXE Northern Community Radio. He said that this race is unlike any other.
“Never in history have we seen a race like this," Brown said. "Since 1946, the office was held by only two different people until 2010 when Cravaack beat Oberstar.”
Perhaps this is what’s fueling the fierce advertising war between the candidates and making it one of the most expensive congressional races in the country. According to the Federal Election Commission reports, the 8th District race is now the third most expensive race in the country, with nearly $9 million spent by super PACs and outside groups.
The onslaught of ads is practically inescapable.
“The interesting thing to see is how voters will react to the spending,” Brown said. “I get packs in the mail almost daily, and you can’t watch local TV for five minutes without seeing an ad for Nolan or Cravaack.”
Vicki Kaping, sales associate at WDIO-TV, said there has been a “ridiculous” amount of ad spots playing this year.
“Since September, we’ve had 392 spots for Cravaack and 302 spots for Nolan,” she said.
Nolan’s first ad, “Earlier,” was broadcast Sept. 13. He focused on his Minnesota heritage and hard work ethic, and he criticizes the Washington mentality. There is no mention of Cravaack.
As the race progressed and voting day grew closer, the gloves came off. On Oct. 22, the YouTube channel Rick Nolan For Congress released another ad called “Minnesota Way” that had a lot to say about Cravaack.
“My opponent’s response has been a smear campaign," Nolan said. "That’s just not the Minnesota way. But maybe he doesn’t know that because he’s not from here, and he doesn’t he live here anymore.”
The ad put Nolan in hot water for false allegation that Cravaack didn’t live in the state. It was pulled from TV spots on WDIO by request of Cravaack’s campaign. According to Minnesota Public Radio, though his family moved to New Hampshire last summer, Cravaack still owns a home in North Branch, Minn., and is there regularly.
The Chip Cravaack YouTube channel has advertisements that are critical of Nolan. In addition to these attacks, huge non-profit organizations have consistently pumped out attack ads for both sides since early September. The 501(c)(4) American Action Network on the right side produced five anti-Nolan ads in the last month alone, calling him a “radical,” criticizing his stance on Medicare and bashing his voting records.
On the left side, there’s the House Majority PAC, an independent expenditure-only committee. Their YouTube channel shows roughly an equal number of posts against Cravaack as the American Action Network’s against Nolan.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to allow uninhibited corporate spending in elections is largely responsible for the torrent of ads from these groups. Each candidate has at least one super PAC on their side. There are also social welfare groups, which are super PACs that don’t have to identify their donors.
Using these PACS for negative ads is a growing tactic, according to the American Politics Research May 2012 study “Assessing Accountability in a Post-Citizens United Era: The Affects of Attack Ad Sponsorship by Unknown Independent Groups,” which was conducted by Dartmouth’s Professor Deborah Banks and Michael Murov.
If you think negative attack ads don’t have any effect on you, think again. The study found that the backlash created by these ads, rather than outright persuasion is advantageous for candidates. Professor of Communication Matthew Kushin of Shepherd University in West Virginia and co-author of the Nov. 2010 Mass Communication and Society article “Did Social Media Really Matter? College Students' Use of Online Media and Political Decision Making in the 2008 Election” contributes to that idea.
“I think that overall, one thing that is potentially an effective route is when you place doubt in the minds of voters about the other candidate,” Kushin said. “We have a tendency to remember negative things.”
However, some research has shown that these negative attack ads can create voter apathy.
“Some research indicates that these kinds of ads make people more cynical and discourage participation,” Kushin said. “They can create a spiral of disaffection: The more media you are exposed to, the less interested you become.”
Brown said he and others in his community are tired of the constant bickering.
“Citizens seem burned out,” Brown said. “I certainly feel burned out. It really shows the closeness of the race. I see an indication that both candidates think they could win if they just flipped a couple of votes.”
All attacks aside, Brown said this race boils down to whether or not people want to see a turn back to a Democratic 8th District.
“It’s a presidential year, so voter turnout is higher," Brown said. "I think what it’s really going to come down to, fundamentally, is whether or not people liked the change in the last two years.”