Chutzpah, communication and culture
The classic definition of chutzpah involves the man who kills his parents and then throws himself on the mercy of the Court because he is an orphan.
Maine is experiencing political chutzpah with an out-of-state group — no one knows exactly who or who is funding it — putting out an ad complaining of out-of-staters trying to undermine Maine’s ethics laws and telling people to vote No on 1. Question 1 has nothing to do with ethics laws but is about whether voters can register to vote on election day. Along with this, as I noted below, “the head of a group that claims transparency is one of its main goals is defending undisclosed contributions and an ad from an undisclosed group — as well as the mischaracterization of a rule about when one should register as a matter of “ethics.”
Truly this is real chutzpah.
But will it work? Will the deceptive ad, paid for by shadowy outsiders, influence voters and enable No to prevail?
I don’t know, but I can point to a number of dynamics involved here based on research on political communication and the intersection between communication and culture.
Clearly, those who designed, funded, and are airing the ad think it will work. Why else would Those Who Are Not Named be doing this?
And there are reasons why it could work. These include that it’s simply a negative message about the issue that competes with the positive messages from Yes on 1, that it hits Mainers’ concern with outsiders influencing the state, and that it might confuse voters about the focus of the People’s Veto vote or about the meaning of Yes and No for the vote. The last one may be the point of the ad, since people do get mixed up in these situations.
And there are other means of influence: The ad could have been designed to push Yes off-message and to create a controversy that moves the media away from the core issue of election day registration. Moreover, news stories about ads usually include a reiteration of what the ad says, thus providing free coverage of the ad’s message.
However, there are also reasons why this might not only be ineffective, but could spark a backlash.
One is that historically Maine people have a low threshold for negative campaigning.
Another is that Maine people really don’t like being lied to.
These two elements are fundamental to Maine’s moralistic political culture.
These elements are so strong that they could move voters the opposite way. This is completely anecdotal, but I had a conversation Friday with a janitor where I work who told me, “I heard the ad and thought, that’s not true. No one’s trying to weaken Maine’s ethics laws. They’re trying to put back the voting law we used to have,” who then said, while he was going to vote No on 1, he was now leaning toward Yes.
As I said, this is just anecdotal, so who knows. But it is suggestive, particularly since one aspect of the ad had not yet come out — that, while complaining about out-of-state interests, it was funded by unknown people from another state.
Moreover, disdain toward deceit is so strong in Maine that it could motivate people to volunteer on the Yes campaign, turn out for it on Tuesday, and cause people to share the news that the ad is a pack of lies that’s funded by people From Away.
On the other hand, whether there’s time for the news to spread is hard to say. Indeed, that’s why dirty politics is most effective when it comes late — there’s less time for the word to get out about the late dirt. But Maine is a small state with strong informal communication channels. If people are talking about the issue, they are likely learning about the deceit.
It’s very hard to say how this will play out, but there’s one thing I know. While people in many other states are not all that surprised by out-and-out lies and deception in politics, it’s been treated harshly in Maine politics. Negative, deceptive communication that does not take account of such cultural tendencies is more likely to fail to achieve its desired effect.
One more thing: Research consistently shows that one of the most critical resources in politics is reputation. When a group has the reputation for integrity, that matters. And when a group gets the reputation for shady dealings, that has long-term consequences for how they are seen by the press and the public. This is true everywhere — not just in clean politics states. Defending this ad and its shadowy source can’t possibly be good for its defenders’ reputations. Even if No prevails, this is another bit of information that will influence how the defenders are seen.
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