Alberta Politics
Transportation Minister and former NDP leader Brian Mason introducing TheTruthAboutJasonKenney.ca yesterday (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

The realpolitik of real politics: attack ads work, and sometimes they’re necessary

Posted on February 15, 2019, 2:02 am
7 mins

One of the enduring myths of our era is that Albertans (or Canadians, or whomever) don’t like negative political advertising, and therefore that political attack ads won’t work here.

Now that Alberta’s New Democratic Party has published a website attacking Opposition Leader Jason Kenney’s record as a federal Conservative MP, cabinet minster and lifelong social conservative activist, with digital advertising spots on the same theme, we are bound to hear that notion repeated a lot.

Mr. Mason as he departed the news conference (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

“Mr. Kenney has spent his entire public life trying to impose his personal beliefs on people,” Transportation Minister and former NDP leader Brian Mason told a news conference called by the party in an Edmonton hotel yesterday afternoon to introduce the website and campaign.

“He has bragged about his work to stop same-sex couples from visiting their dying loved ones in hospital, and he has described his efforts in Ottawa to restrict women’s reproductive rights his ‘most distinct privilege,’” said Mr. Mason.

Within minutes, plenty of people on social media – not all of them supporters of Mr. Kenney’s party – were grumping about the negativity inherent in what the NDP news release called the “detailed and fact-based account of Mr. Kenney’s long career as a politician who works against the interests of everyday people, choosing instead to serve anti-abortion activists, anti LGBTQ groups and other special interests.”

You can judge for yourself by visiting TheTruthAboutJasonKenney.ca. There are footnotes – well, hyperlinks, which are the footnotes of the Internet era – so the NDP can say they’ve backed up everything they say with verifiable facts.

As to the notion that political attack advertising won’t work in Canada because Canadians don’t like it, that is far less certain. The record of political negativity, as they say, is ambiguous, but the prevalence of negative advertising in places a lot like our Alberta is not.

United Conservative Party Leader Jason Kenney (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

According to Oxford Research Encyclopedias, while only 10 per cent of the advertisements aired during the 1960 U.S. presidential campaign went negative, in 2012 only about 14 per cent did not! There’s a reason for that and the reason is they work.

In other words, the prevailing wisdom contains a kernel of truth – most folks don’t much like negative political advertisements – but you simply cannot conclude from that they aren’t effective. Their prevalence in U.S. politics, their growing influence in Canada, and their arrival in Alberta 11 years ago prove they do.

From Democrat Lyndon Johnson’s apocalyptic “Daisy” ad in 1964 attacking Republican Barry Goldwater, to Republican George H.W. Bush’s unsavoury “Willie Horton” spot in 1988 attacking Democrat Michael Dukakis, to Conservative Stephen Harper’s successful effort in 2009 to plant the thought the brainy Liberal Michael Ignatieff was “just visiting,” done right, they get results.

There’s another piece of conventional wisdom that attack ads that mock a politician’s appearance or circumstances will flop, but those that attack a politician’s record are more likely to succeed. Having watched U.S. President Donald Trump campaign, it’s hard to feel confident even that is still true. If that’s the case, though, the NDP’s Truth-About-Jason campaign is safely on the side of the political angels.

Of course, no matter how good an attack ad is, such campaigns are not a silver bullet that can wipe out a 20-per-cent lead in the polls. For that to happen, the leading politician has to meet his or her opponent halfway, as did the hapless B.C. NDP leader Adrian Dix in 2013 when he countered then-premier Christy Clark’s attack ads with sunshine and bumbling.

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

Despite Mr. Kenney’s dismissive response yesterday, I don’t think the Alberta NDP can count on the United Conservative Party to stick to the high road the way Mr. Dix did in the event the NDP campaign starts to get traction.

The UCP cleverly announced some campaign finance proposals yesterday to distract from Mr. Mason’s presser. Ideas like a ban on MLAs crossing the floor of the Legislature, bound to appeal to the UCP’s red-meat Wildrose Party base, are pretty blatantly unconstitutional, but we’ll deal with them in more detail another day.

In the mean time, the NDP’s duly footnoted truths about Mr. Kenney does provide an opportunity for Albertans to compare him less than favourably with Premier Rachel Notley, who personally polls more positively than Mr. Kenney does.

“Given that the best predictor of future behaviour is past behaviour,” Mr. Mason said yesterday, “Albertans deserve to know these and other truths about Mr. Kenney before they choose their next premier.”

“Mr. Kenney cares about privatizing health care, chipping away at women’s rights, and giving the richest 1 per cent of Albertans a tax cut they don’t need,” he said. “Rachel Notley cares about defending our hospitals, diversifying the economy, and treating every Albertan with dignity and respect.”

Mr. Mason will retire from his long career in Alberta politics after the election expected to be called any day now. If there’s any backsplash from the negativity unveiled yesterday, I doubt if the old New Democrat warhorse will much care if any of it lands on him.

Call it the realpolitik of real politics: Attack ads work, and sometimes they’re necessary.

13 Comments to: The realpolitik of real politics: attack ads work, and sometimes they’re necessary

  1. Farmer Brian

    February 15th, 2019

    As I watch the news the last few days in relation to the upcoming election this is was sticks in my mind. The UCP is proposing to loosen up public liquor consumption laws, making some modifications to how the minimum wage applies to liquor servers, bringing in possible recall legislation, making crossing the floor in the legislature less attractive and the list goes on. Then we have the NDP, well they have found a new way to go after Jason Kenney, no surprise here. To me it appears the NDP is acknowledging that what they have done over the last 31/2 years is not that popular and that the only chance they have is to continue to attack Jason Kenney. If I was Jason Kenney I would consider this a very positive developement. David, enjoy your day.

    Reply
    • Farmer Dave

      February 16th, 2019

      So Farmer Brian you speak about liquor laws. Jason Kenney refers to liquor laws in Europe however never mentions anything about allowing liquor in grocery stores. I was involved in the privatization model in Alberta and why the private model is like it is, not allowing liquor in grocery stores, you just need to check who donated the most money to the PC party at that time. And then you make the comment that the NDP have done things that are not popular, do you mean like over 30 badly needed schools that were constructed or the construction of the cancer hospital in Calgary, maybe Jason Kenney can repeal these. And the minimum wage roll back, Kenney wants, that would only benefit the Walmarts, McDonalds and big chain grocery stores in Alberta. Is this what you and JK mean that we need to get back to the Alberta Advantage? Your logic continues to run backwards.

      Reply
  2. David

    February 15th, 2019

    If you want to be entertained, shocked and enlightened watch a US political ad on cable when they are having an election. In comparisson, we Canadians seem positively polite, nice and genteel. Now, I don’t think attack ads always work either, but they can, especially if there is enough truth in them or they appeal to what people want to believe. I don’t think we should be afraid to upset someone to get a clear message across. I think the voters actually want and deserve some candor and not tip toeing around.

    Kenney must have been a bit desperate to change the channel today, he actually talked policy again. It sounds like right out of his now discarded grassroots guarantee. However, I wonder if his recall promise would really survive much past the election if he gained power? Politicians in the past have trotted out similar pledges, to be conveniently forgotten, watered down or rescinded later. How can we be any more sure Kenney would keep his word?

    I also suppose Ignatieff is not the only one who could be viewed as “Just Visiting”. Four days in a year, supposedly in his mom’s basement, sounds a lot more like visiting to me than living here. I suspect the more people get to know the real Kenney in the next while they will like him even less. Many Albertans, including some inclined to support his party, already have a vague uneasy feeling about him and most average voters have not even started paying close attention to the upcoming election yet.

    Maybe what is put forward about Kenney will seem a bit nasty because there is really not that much good to say.

    Reply
  3. tom in ontario

    February 15th, 2019

    Brian Mason and the NDP realize what poor Adrian Dix in BC did not. Not only do nice guys stumble to the bottom, they’re laughed at.

    Reply
  4. Bob Raynard

    February 15th, 2019

    “Rachel Notley, who personally polls more positively than Mr. Kenney does.”

    I wonder if Jason Kenney ever reflects on the fact that the best way for him to succeed in his ‘mission’ to unite the conservatives and defeat the NDP would have been for him to not run for leader.

    Reply
  5. Graham Barker

    February 15th, 2019

    Good article. Headed up as campaigns in several provincial elections and Clear evidence exists that:
    Negative ads move polling numbers.
    Positive ads solidify numbers.
    It is proven time and time again.
    GB

    Reply
  6. Scotty on Denman

    February 15th, 2019

    Ignatieff has himself to blame for losing to Harper—although negative ads probably didn’t (or did) help: he accepted his leadership appointment from the Liberal Party executive instead of from the membership after burning up the little political capital he brought with him from his 35-year tenure at an American University. The way I parsed the guts and feathers back then was this: a significant number of erstwhile Liberal voters didn’t like that appointment and a significant number of them simply stayed home to protest on the big day instead of casting for an alternative.

    The whole thing went waaaay back to John Turner beating Jean Chrétien for the leadership when Free Trade and the GST were the hot issues. The fissure into which Chrétien crawled to fight his way to three Liberal majorities ( one of them now famous: le ‘tit gars de Shawinigan kept us out if Iraq); but the scrappy, wily, straight -through-the-heart Chrétien left scar tissue on either side of this peuodo-tzit-tzim, making it hard to weld back together when the Shawinigan Strangler retired from the vacuole, kinda like the Norse god-cat that holds the heavens and earth together, one flick of its tale signalling the end of the Liberal cosmos and leaving a nasty gash into which Paul Martin, then Bob Rae, then Stephane Dion then Michael Ignatieff tumbled, consumed all. Then Harper and Jack Layton (replaced by Thomas Mulcair upon Layton’s death) held the gaping maw apart long enough for both their zeniths to eventually get squashed in the crusher, too. We are reminded that when the Turner-Chrétien stress-fracture snapped shut on Mulroney’s back-to-back governments it squished the two largest federal majorities in Canadian history down to the size of a penny on a railroad track— while Jean kept his fingers and toes safely out of the way.

    Stephen Harper’s negativity towards the Liberals was as strategic as it was personal or tactical: he believed (and Conservative Theologians scribbled) that he would remake Canada in his own image by slaying the hissing Liberal devil-dragon that’d been ‘Canada’s Natural Government’ since Laurier, not just by leader ad hominem, not just the party, but the whole middle-of-the-road ethos of Canadian politcal culture, leaving, he calculated, the field for the far right and the few left. In reality, Harper only took a selfie with one foot standing triumphantly on a “vanquished” Liberal party which, truth be known, he actually found unconscious on the ground, almost bled out from self-inflicted wounds it sustained in its own knife fight.

    The Liberal schism fissured right across the country and three back-to-back federal minorities toppled in; half-a-dozen years of default Harper minorities followed until he dropped his prybar down the closing crevice after winning but a single majority (the HarperCons’ electoral cheating notwithstanding); Trudeau the Younger bathed at the sunny telos, his Liberal party battle-scarred but now purged, the closing chasm only visible where the NDP’s sixteen seats in Quebec hold it open like a pebble keeping a firedoor ajar; while JT was blowing Harper away, despite the long, long “He’s Just Not Ready” negative campaign paean, Harper and Mulcair wrapped themselves the niqab, the scoundrel and anti-scoundrel, respectively.

    Really, in terms of Con-negativity it was always difficult to tell if Harper was being negative or just breathing.

    Are the Liberals still Canada’s Natrual Governing Party after all that? It’s notable that of the three main parties the Liberals are the only unified one, almost a teleology as if they’ll always be there in the end (Harper’s nightmare scenario he proved unable to wrest). The far-right and the few-left have resumed their positions as footnotes to the larger text of federal politics and history, both parties with palpable schizophrenia, both in their hallucinatory phases—and maybe soon a straightjacket phase for the NDP if Jagmeet loses the Burnaby by-election week-after-next.

    Reply
  7. Steve S

    February 15th, 2019

    Agree with comment that most people do not like negative political advertising. The NDP do not need to resort to this.

    Reply
  8. Jerrymacgp

    February 16th, 2019

    I, for one, am somewhat disappointed the NDP have gone this route. Yes, Premier Jason Kenney is a frightening prospect for anyone left of the Paleolithic Epoch. But, while attack ads do work, sometimes, they can also drive cynicism towards politics & politicians and drive down voter turnout. You can be sure that the Wilberforce Conservative Party will have a dedicated GOTV effort ready to go when the writ is dropped, and the NDP’s only hope is for currently uncommitted voters to go to the polls and vote for steady, competent, drama-free governance. This sort of thing risks making them declare a pox on both houses, which is to the WCP’s advantage.

    Reply
  9. Death and Gravity

    February 16th, 2019

    What the NDP is acknowledging is that 45% of Albertans are fuckwits who have given overwhelming electoral majorities of 55-75% to conservative parties in all elections but one since 1905. This voting record cannot be explained by facts on the ground or by policy preferences, as you disingenuously imply. There is no ordinary way to reach these people, who are clearly beyond the reach of reason. A large portion (the 45% at least) of that that 55-75% will vote Kenney exactly because he is a misogynist, bible-pounding, bullying asshole, as are so very many Albertans (and North Americans, it must be said). But not all of them. Pointing out to those just who exactly they are voting for might pry a sufficient number of the habitual-but-not-ideological con voters away so as to have some positive electoral consequence. So yes, it’s the only road open to the NDP, but it’s not because of their policies per se. It’s because of the Alberta electorate, which would be more at home in Alabama than in a modern secular industrial democracy.

    Reply
    • David Climenhaga

      February 17th, 2019

      Disingenuous? Moi? DJC

      Reply
  10. Doug Brown

    February 18th, 2019

    I’ll vote for Kenney because he might cut spending. The 20% claim on the NDP website would be about perfect as it would bring Alberta’s per capita spending down to BC levels.

    The rest of the NDP website is drivel. Social policy is irrelevant because government long ago lost the ability to influence social norms. Government’s only role is service provider of last resort. The key performance indicator is how efficiently government can provide those services.

    Reply
  11. Trevor Marr

    April 10th, 2019

    The Left have failed Canada for 4 years now, Provincially and Federally, we are weaker and in massive debt. The Left know how to TAKE our money, but are clueless on how to MAKE us money! The Left have shown that they are unbalanced, self-serving, unsustainable, failed agenda driven hypocrites. Alberta and Canada must not reward failure with any more years! My Provincial vote is for Jason Kenney and the UCP, my Federal vote is for Andrew Scheer and the Conservatives!

    We want our Alberta and Canada back, after 4 LONG years of Leftist Failure! A strong Alberta is a Strong Canada!

    Reply

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