Hyperlocal Media Meets Negative Campaigning

    by G. Patton Hughes
    July 3, 2008

    If all politics are local, then hyperlocal media of sorts should be in tall cotton when it comes to local politics. No so and not now; rather hyperlocal media is at best a big thorn in the side of the key group that determines where the big buck political money goes.

    That key group is the political consultant. This group controls spending for most big-dollar local races such as state house, senate, commission chairman and sheriff in most mid-size to large counties in the nation.

    Today a serious candidate for commission chairman in Paulding County will spend upwards of $100,000 to mount a successful campaign. Of that the three weekly newspapers, a couple of slick monthly magazines, paulding.com and cable TV will get less than 10 percent of those campaign funds.


    My estimates of spending suggests that consultant driven direct mail campaigns will get the lion’s share of the advertising spending. Yard signs, web sites, free-food rallies and campaign trinkets will get an estimated 20 percent. Ten to fifteen percent goes to the consultant for fees.

    Central to these consultant’s strategies is negative advertising using direct mail to the most likely voters. In Paulding County this is a list of about 14,000 homes who are likely voters in the dominant GOP primary. The cost to mail this list is about $10,000 or over $700/per thousand or more depending on the cost of the actual mail piece.

    Negative campaigning works, but…

    What is disturbing from a public policy standpoint is the utter disconnect between reality and the campaign message. Of course this is the reason consultants choose direct mail. It is effective in relating whatever message – and today that usually means negative message — the consultant wants.


    Most recognize that the purpose of campaigns, elections, parties and consultants is to win. Consultants, whose future livelihood depends on winning at any cost, have no problem running negative campaigns that distort to truth to the point is it unrecognizable as that is a proven path to victory.

    However, such distortions not only mis-inform the local population as to the specific charge, but often distort the role of public officials to enact change or even govern. This is particularly pernicious as the voter is often presented with something disturbing. In the mass-media world, this means we will have to go out and literally search for the factual information to refute the allegation.

    And sometimes these negative campaigns are in the form of allegations. One that was distributed four years ago in a state senate race the Friday before the Tuesday primary, led with the headline that alleged the challenger planned to open Sex Shops in (community name).

    Negative campaigns fall below the radar

    These kinds of campaign tactics also rarely enter the general discussion in the major metropolitan media unless it involves a major city mayor or congressional candidate. With literally dozens of state-senate races in a broadcast market or distribution area of the typical major metropolitan newspaper, the goings-on in a particular race rarely generate a story. What few stories written end up below the fold on page 6 D. While a daily newspaper may do a story on such tactics, it is relatively rare for this kind of story to get space, at least in the local weeklies in this community. Local radio might, if they had a general call in show, talk about these kinds of shenanigans but as we know, most hyperlocal radio has been programmed out of existence.

    Bloggers/community sites provide immediate feedback

    That leaves this ‘story’ to bloggers and hyperlocal news/social sites like Paulding.com to explore. In my case, the complaints appear to be making a difference. How big a difference remains to be seen.

    The difference is that each of the negative mailers sent out by both commission chair candidates this primary season have generated a topics of their own within about 24 hours of them hitting mailboxes. Typically someone in the camp gored by the direct mail piece will describe it and denounce it. Others will join in; some asking questions and others even defending the allegation, half-truth or distortion contained in the original mailer.

    In the past two weeks there have been six specific active topics on Paulding.com discussing the ‘mailers’ … all of them critical and some very critical. That’s the good news.

    The bad news is that the most viewed of the topics has been read a total of 3,350 times … by probably about 1000 total readers or only a small portion of the 10,000 who received the mailing. The least viewed was seen only 260 times.

    Regardless, conversation about these despicable bits of misinformation continues to generate interest and that helps counter the obvious and undeserved benefit the perpetrating candidate reaps from their adoption of negative campaign strategies.

    What upsets me most is that the alternatives to direct mail – not just my hyperlocal site but the newspapers and magazines – is they offer communication conduits that are significantly less expensive than the $700/per thousand direct mail and provide public service in times other than political campaign cycles.

    The main point is those politicians who want the job so bad they go out and raise big bucks to afford this kind of negative campaigning do so for the selfish reason of a certain victory. Their choice is informed because in hiring these consultants to do negative direct mail campaigns, they must know they show disrespect for those media that support the community 24/7/365.

    Tagged: hyperlocal local politics

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