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PAC money not sole decider of 21st Congressional race, observers say

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WATERTOWN — In conceding the Republican primary election in the 21st Congressional District race Tuesday to Elise M. Stefanik, Matthew A. Doheny cited negative advertising paid for by interests outside the area as the key factor in his loss.

But can money and ads make enough of a difference to account for an about 20 percentage point margin of victory?

“The obvious answer is, ‘Yes, sure,’” said John Zogby, founder of the Zogby Poll. “Money is not the be-all and the end-all, but it certainly has an impact, especially in a negative campaign.”

Grant Reeher, director of the Alan K. Campbell Public Affairs Institute at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, said outside money could be a factor in determining the outcome of a race, particularly if there is a “complete imbalance” in the amount spent on one candidate versus another.

“When it gets to that level, it can make a difference,” he said.

American Crossroads, a Republican super PAC co-founded by Karl Rove, spent more than $800,000 on television ads and mailers expressly opposing Mr. Doheny, who estimated Tuesday that he had been outspent by a “six, seven to one” margin.

Mr. Reeher, who had not seen the ads opposing Mr. Doheny, said the issue of independent sources paying for advertising typically “complicates” matters for voters because it can be hard to determine whether the ad is a candidate attacking an opponent or a response from an independent source to a previous ad.

“To the average person watching it at dinner, the distinction is lost,” he said.

Richard Benedetto, adjunct professor of journalism at the School of Public Affairs at American University, said national exit polling has shown that voters claim that negative ads do not play a significant role in voting choices, particularly if the ads are played frequently or become repetitive.

“When the ads are on so much, they just become background noise,” he said.

Mr. Reeher said the main thing a candidate needs to do when an opponent issues a negative ad is quickly counter it.

“The rule of thumb is that when you get hit with a negative ad, you have to respond to it,” Mr. Reeher said. “If you don’t, then it just sits out there and people accept it as that’s the way it is.”

Both Mr. Reeher and Mr. Zogby said that any negative advertising paid for by sources not directly tied to the candidates’ campaigns was likely one of many factors in determining an election’s outcome. Both cited Mr. Doheny’s two prior unsuccessful runs for the seat as a potential factor.

“To be honest, seldom does money make something out of nothing, so you have to take into consideration that to some degree Doheny was already damaged goods,” Mr. Zogby said. “In a sense, Doheny emerged from both previous campaigns with more of a negative image than a positive one.”

“Doheny had his shot and didn’t make it; there may be some Doheny fatigue at this point,” Mr. Reeher said.

However, all three men said that one factor that cannot be overlooked is the strength of Ms. Stefanik as a candidate. Mr. Zogby noted that she received numerous endorsements early on in her candidacy, and Mr. Benedetto said it has become unusual to see a congressional race decided by 20 percentage points.

“If she won by 20 points she really had strong support without the ads,” Mr. Benedetto said. “Without outside money, the race might have been a lot closer, but it probably wouldn’t have made a difference.”

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