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Stacy Column: Going negative

By TODD STACY, Alabama Daily News

There are six weeks until Alabama’s primary elections on March 3rd. If that sounds like a long time, think about it this way: that’s only one month and eleven days away.

In the life cycle of a campaign, this is about the time when the last internal polling numbers have come in showing where the candidates stand in the horse race and indicating what next steps need to be taken. Most times that means testing messages, whether a positive narrative for your candidate or a negative attack on a rival. Of course, nobody likes “going negative,” so in the political business these are generally referred to as “showing contrast.”

With the proverbial homestretch on the horizon, we are starting to see plenty of “contrast” being drawn. In the race for Congress in Alabama’s 2nd District, candidates are coming after Dothan businessman Jeff Coleman over a dispute his moving company had the with the federal government, using serious words like “fraud” and “corruption.” In the race for U.S. Senate, Tommy Tuberville this week is ratcheting up the rhetoric against Jeff Sessions, saying he “turned on our president” and likening him to former House Speaker Paul Ryan.

Trust me that more loaded salvos will come, but these first two provide an interesting look into the art and science of campaigns. In fact, the cases are similar.

Any quality polling conducted by candidates in the 2nd District would show Coleman as the clear frontrunner (ADN recently published such a poll), while the others need to make up serious ground to force a runoff. The quickest way to do that is to go on the offensive, which is what Prattville businesswoman Jessica Taylor and former State Rep. Barry Moore are doing with this line of attack on the weighing and billing dispute. More to the point, because Coleman has made his moving company a centerpiece of his campaign, an attack pointing out his $5 million settlement with the Department of Justice is aimed to undermine his larger message, which it could if handled deftly. It also has the potential to backfire if done ham-handedly, just like all negative campaigning does. And to be clear, Coleman has strongly pushed back against the notion that he did anything wrong in candidate forums and statements from the campaign.

Fair or unfair, the reality is the attack on Coleman probably won’t matter unless and until a candidate or outside group puts it on the airwaves with some serious resources behind it. Even in our hyper-aware world of Facebook and Twitter, earned media doesn’t move numbers like it once did. Most times, it takes well-placed, consistent and prolonged paid advertising to have a message sink in with voters. We’ll see if that happens in this case.

Similarly, any decent Senate race polling would show Sessions leading the pack with at least a chance of getting the 50% plus one needed to avoid a runoff. Tuberville, who runs second in every recent poll I’ve seen, must change that status quo if he wants to earn his way into a head-to-head matchup with Sessions, and that means lobbing some bombs (Inside Alabama Politics recently posted a rundown of recent Senate polls). Good polling would also show what Sessions’ biggest weakness is: his falling out of favor with President Donald Trump. That’s a no-brainer line of attack, but again, the specific message matters. As Mark Twain once said, the difference between the right word and the wrong word is like the difference between lightning and the lightning bug. A good attack has to ring true.

Not for nothing, I have to say the Paul Ryan reference tickles me. I’ve always found it amazing how Ryan went from being the conservative stalwart every Young Republican wanted a picture with to a moderate squish used as a convenient whipping boy by the far right. I’ve seen survey research indicating Ryan is one of the most unpopular political figures among Alabama voters, so I’m not surprised to see his name referenced in an attempt to show contrast. It’s just funny that the message likens Sessions and Ryan because there is no love lost between those two men. Aside from having vastly different views of conservatism, Sessions and Ryan were known to do battle legislatively, especially back when each was the respective Republican budget leader in the Senate and House. It would be like attacking Goldwater by calling him a Rockefeller Republican, and I would love to have seen Sessions’ reaction when he heard it.

Again, no attack on Sessions is likely to move the needle unless it is done using a combination of television, radio and mail ads. Tuberville is said to be reluctant to spend a lot of his money in the race, which was at least part of the reason for a recent campaign shakeup reported by Inside Alabama Politics. Perhaps this latest effort shows a change in direction, but we won’t know for sure until we see an ad buy. I will also be watching to see if Congressman Bradley Byrne runs any ads painting a “contrast” with either Tuberville or Sessions. He needs to leapfrog Tuberville to make it into the runoff, and his campaign has had an aggressive bent to it this year so far. However, he is still building critical name recognition in north Alabama, so going on the offensive could be a double-edged sword if it takes away any resources from that endeavor.

Voters can complain about it all they want, but negative ads work. Candidates and special interest groups wouldn’t run them if they didn’t. My advice is to never take any political message at face value, but rather research the issue in question to make up your own mind. In any case, buckle up because plenty of poll-tested lines of attack will be flying overhead in the next six weeks.

Todd Stacy is the publisher of the Alabama Daily News. He previously spent 15 years working in politics and government at the state and federal level. Email him at [email protected].

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