Indiana’s U.S. Senate race is one of the tightest in the country. Most polls throughout the campaign have the difference between Democrat Joe Donnelly and Republican Richard Mourdock within the margin of error, which is a statistical tie.
Many analysts say the outcome could also determine which party controls the Senate. Those factors have created an ad blitz in the state from groups outside the two campaigns.
The Television Ad Blitz
If you have turned on your TV in Indiana in the last month, it has been almost impossible not to see at least one political ad, and usually a lot more than one. While ads for Richard Mourdock or Joe Donnelly have dominated the airwaves, it is often not an ad from one of the candidates.
Independent spending groups, not affiliated with the Mourdock or Donnelly campaigns, have spent more than $8 million this election cycle. In the last week alone, more than $2 million has been poured into the state. Donnelly says that is not a good thing.
“I don’t think any of these groups should be here. This should be an Indiana election about the people of Indiana and that’s all I focus on like a laser every single day,” he says.
Mourdock says the huge influx of outside money has become the new normal for key races.
“It does change the tenor of a race,” he says. “In many ways, the money that the candidates themselves raise is no longer as significant as what’s coming in from the outside.”
As important as the amount of outside ads is the message of those ads. Independent expenditure groups are not allowed to coordinate messages with campaigns. So, as Mourdock says, even he does not know what’s coming.
“We find out each day as the filings are posted who’s bought advertising time: who they are, where they are, where they’re buying ads and then we hold our breath each morning waiting to see what the commercial is they’re airing,” Mourdock says.
Mourdock’s remarks about rape have only heightened the advertising battle. The Associated Press reported Friday, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spent $1.1 million on an ad criticizing Mourdock for his comments.
And while the specifics of the message have varied based on the group and timing, the tone is generally negative. Take these two ads below for example.
An ad from American Bridge PAC criticizing Mourdock:
An ad from the National Republican Senatorial Committee criticizing Donnelly:
Why Negative Ads? Because They Work
Indiana University political scientist Marjorie Hershey says outside ads can play a vital role in campaigns by allowing the candidates themselves to avoid going sharply negative. She says that is important because voters often judge a candidate the way they judge a new neighbor.
“You know, do they seem nice? Do they seem competent? Do they seem like somebody whom you’d be interested in talking with and having a conversation with?”
The conservative group Club for Growth has spent more than a million dollars in Indiana since the primary. Its president, former Indiana Congressman Chris Chocola, says while some may complain about negativity in ads, attacks work.
“People may say they get kind of sick of it but you know what? They also can repeat the message, they also can have an opinion that’s formed in part because they get information from those ads,” Chocola says.
State Democratic Party chair Dan Parker says the messaging of outside ads also focuses on a different voting bloc.
“I think a lot of the ads that are on TV now are really meant to sort of stoke up the two bases but the candidates’ messages are really geared towards those folks in the middle,” he says.
Hershey says negative, outside ads can have a real impact on a race, especially if they are among the first messaging an undecided voter hears.
“When they come relatively early or before a voter has made up his or her mind, then they tend to be pretty motivating,” Hershey says.
Parker says his concern is not how many of these ads are on the air, but that they may turn voters off about the political process.
“The worry I have is not so much what the message that voters are getting,” he says. “It’s if they get too much of it, will they just not vote at all.”
But Chocola says voter fatigue is not something he worries about.
“If you get to the point of diminishing return, it’s better than not getting the information,” he says.
Both candidates say they do not rely on the messages outside ads convey, preferring instead to craft their own. Still, in the era of Super PACs, the wait-and-see of what political messages will contain is now as much an activity for candidates as it is for voters.