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San Diego Political Campaigns Switch To Emotion-Driven Ads

November 1, 2012 1:25 p.m.


Carl Luna, Political Science professor, Mesa College

Sara Libby, Managing Editor, Voice of San Diego

Related Story: San Diego Political Campaigns Switch To Emotion-Driven Ads


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. Perhaps it's too much to ask as we head into the final days of the political campaigns to get ads and mailers about the real issues in the election. But the ads we're seeing now in San Diego seem to be stretching the envelope when it comes to both taste and truth. Joining me to talk about some of these final-hour political TV commercials are my guests, Sarah Libby, managing editor of voice of San Diego. Welcome.

LIBBY: Thank you for having me.

CAVANAUGH: And Carl Luna is here, political science professor at Mesa College. Welcome back.

LUNA: Good to be here.

CAVANAUGH: Carl, you've been leading conferences this year aimed at restoring civility to civic dialogue. How depressed do you become about that prospect closer to election day?

LUNA: Well, you can see we have had a profound impact.


LUNA: It's a slow process. Next time around, a little bit less of this. But it's a combination of A, par for the course, and B, intensified because of all the additional money that's being set, very close races, and that is just fodder for a lot of explosive ads.

CAVANAUGH: Now, the mayoral race between Carl DeMaio and Bob Filner has been quite nasty at times. Carl, what have you seen as maybe one of the more misleading or nasty accusations on either side?

LUNA: Well, one of the more negative ads that came out were the attacks that Bob Filner is unfit to be in office. They brought out a TSA lady that he yelled at, and that was a direct attack upon him. I remember the worst ad, an Internet ad on Carl DeMaio which got an F from our rating group for just being utterly personal in nature. But the level of the personal attacks has definitely escalated over the last couple of weeks.

CAVANAUGH: Carl talked about the amount of money being spent. When I think of the amount of money, it's really congressional 52 blowing the stack, isn't it?

LUNA: Millions of dollars from the Republican and democratic national committees. The 52nd is more of an emotional, morale blazer. It's not going to swing control of the house, particularly. But to have a solid Republican seat slip away in a changing demographic is like a bellwether for the party.

CAVANAUGH: And another tight race there.

LUNA: The polls have it pretty much even with the undecideds diminishing, and it's going to come down to a coin toss and whoever shows up on election day plus all the absentee ballots floating around.

CAVANAUGH: Sarah, one of the last-minute ads by Bilbray is a centerpiece.

NEW SPEAKER: I'm Breanna Bilbray, and I have terminal cancer. My dad's work might not save my life, but it could save thousands of others.

NEW SPEAKER: I approve this adbecause some things are more important than politics.

CAVANAUGH: What is this ad about?

LIBBY: It's about Bilbray's daughter, Breanna, who is fighting cancer, and he's sort of making this plea to voters that's a huge pivot that you should elect me because I have this noble, personal cause of helping my daughter face cancer and helping everyone fight cancer.

CAVANAUGH: And it begins by saying Bilbray is working with both sides. It's hard for me to understand, how do we explain this? That he's working with both sides when he has had so many votes made on party line votes that go against healthcare reform?

LIBBY: I'm not sure. I think that he may just be harnessing the fact that nobody is going to say that they're antifighting cancer or funding cancer research, but it's certainly true that he has been a strong voice in opposition of the affordable care act, even though he is seeking to use some of those funds to fund the cancer-fighting initiatives that he's talking about in this ad.

CAVANAUGH: There's no doubt, I want to put this to both of you, there's no doubt that Breanna Bilbray is sincere in making this pitch for her dad to continue his work in the Congress. But is there something about this ad that goes over the line?

LUNA: Well, I don't think it particularly goes over a line, per se. Because there are no lines. It's pretty much whatever works to get you the vote. An ad like this, and I know the Bilbray family indirectly and all, our kids went to school and everything, so it's a terrible tragedy they have been going through. When you air an ad like this this close to the election, you make the risk of looking desperate. If you run it earlier, it might have established the narrative that you're a kindly, caring, compassionate conservative, which is the what the ad's supposed to be about. The first major ad where Carl DeMaio ran, his back history, and he's holding a puppy, these are not things you're going to attack. But for Bilbray, it's too late in the campaign to avoid the attacks.

CAVANAUGH: Before we decided to talk about these ads, this is it an unscientific survey, but the people I talked with this call this ad jaw-dropping. And we just looked at each other, a married couple looking at each other speechless after seeing that ad. So it does seem to be provoking a reaction. But we just don't know what kind, Sarah.

LIBBY: Absolutely. It's a very personal ad. She's talking about her father, and she's sitting in this warmly-lit living room, and you feel like you're being let into this very personal snapshot of their lives. And that kind of thing has a lot of emotional resonance with people. And they just want to root for this girl and I'm sure Brian Bilbray is hoping root for him as their Congressman.

CAVANAUGH: Let me move onto a pair of TV ads running in the San Diego mayor's race. And they do seem aimed straight it's the emotions. We don't know exactly what emotions though! Let's talk about the ad for Bob Filner that accuses Carl DeMaio of voting against compensation for families of fallen police officers.

(Audio Recording Played)

NEW SPEAKER: Our father was a San Diego police officer.

NEW SPEAKER: When he was killed in the line of duty, our lives were forever change. You can imagine how we felt when Carl DeMaio voted twice against death benefits for families of slain police officers.

NEW SPEAKER: It wasn't personal, he was just trying to score political points.

NEW SPEAKER: But it felt personal to us.

CAVANAUGH: Now, can you describe how that commercial looks?

LIBBY: It's very powerful, it's just a stark image of the two siblings and they're at a time in black and white, and just speaking directly to the camera. Of it's very somber. You can see them speaking slowly and emotionally, and it really pulls you in.

CAVANAUGH: Now, I know that voice of San Diego fact-checked that ad, and found it was "mostly true."

LIBBY: It was mostly true. The two votes that they're researching, DeMaio would object saying both were part of larger package deals with labor and deals regarding retirement health benefits. But at least in one of those votes it was specified during the meeting this includes survivor death benefits. And he voted against it knowing that.

CAVANAUGH: But the substance of it, technically speaking, is true. But Carl, I'm wondering, does this ad really tell us anything of substance about Carl DeMaio?

LUNA: Not particularly. This ad was actually kind of a repeat of an ad Nathan Fletcher ran in the primaries, right down to the amazing grace playing in the background, and the same votes that Carl DeMaio did. Yet politicians vote on lots of things, and one of the things that comes back to haunt you, there is something that said we love market, and we want to spend X billions of dollars on something else, and you vote on the package, and you get accused of not loving mothers. While we held this one to be true, it wasn't particularly relevant or fair. It's one of those classic ploys you use against any elected politician.

CAVANAUGH: The third ad, an ad from Carl DeMaio against Bob Filner. And it features a woman named Joanne.

(Audio Recording Played)

NEW SPEAKER: I deal with frustrated travelers every day. But I never came across anyone like Bob Filner. He was angry, his actions toward me were scary and hostile. I'll never forget, he told me "you can't stop me." I was afraid for my safety. Worst of all, he said it never happened.

CAVANAUGH: Now, can you tell us what the incident is she's talking about?

LIBBY: The incident happened in 2007 can the Dolis airport. Filner became aggressive and upset when he couldn't get his baggage back to him in a timely manner. And he, you know, exchanged some sharp words with baggage handlers, and high, I think, entered a restricted area. And that's what it's about. But you wouldn't know is it from that ad.

CAVANAUGH: Indeed. Carl, why aren't the particulars of this incident made clear in this advertisement?

LUNA: Well, in part, dare I say, all of us enter time to time have been angry with TSA and baggage handling. So if you get into the details, we start empathizing with Mr. Filner. We've all been at the airport when someone was yelling at TSA, and in the back of our mind, we go, yeah, you go, guy! I don't want to be body searched. We reviewed this ad, we gave it low ratings, because it's irrelevant as to how you're going to perform as an actual politician. My personal dislike of it, this is a character ad. He's a bad person, you don't want him to be Congressman or mayor. That's little correlation between the niceness of a person and how well they perform in office. We had nice politicians here, Dick Murphy, nice guy, didn't keep the city from going down in flames. And an emotional appeal, I don't think it's going to gain that much for the DeMaio campaign.

CAVANAUGH: And there's sort of an inference in this ad, isn't there?

LIBBY: There is. You wouldn't know what incident she was referring to because she doesn't describe it, but she uses some very coded language, like he said it never happened, where if you didn't know what happened, you might insinuate that some sort of assault took place, that some sort of a sexual incident occurred, and that's not what happened.

CAVANAUGH: Say you're in the Filner camp, and this could be in any camp, and you see this commercial. Is there any recourse that politicians have at this late stage to do anything about these ads that are running?

LUNA: No. They're coming out so fast and furious that your recourse is to fire off your next negative ad, it shifts the narrative, and we start talking about that one: And the risk to us all is that that leads to escalation, which you saw in the mayoral campaign. Ads getting progressively more nasty and personal. It's a bit of desperation. Because over 200,000 debates and everything else, you've still got a very close race.

CAVANAUGH: Sarah, you made a good point I thought in your article in Voice about these TV ads. You said it seemed like it was a last-minute attempt in some way to engage the women's vote, to get women into the dialogue of this election for mayor in particular. And they haven't had much of a place before that.

LIBBY: It's true. I just moved to San Diego, so I'm jumping in as a relatively new observer. And there's been a lot of talk about pension reform, and they focused a lot on the ultimate location of a Chargers stadium, whether it should be built somewhere else, whether they were refurbish the new one. And those issues really don't impact my daily life too much. But I do want to root for the guy who's going to cure cancer, or I might be turned away from voting for the guy who assaulted a baggage handler if that's the impression that I got from the ad. So I do think that they're trying to urge people into the voting booth by following their heart.

CAVANAUGH: And is this typical of the kind of last-minute appeal that basically, Carl, the idea of who is for what and who's against what doesn't make any difference now? You're going for those people who haven't made up their minds or who have to be cajoled in some way to cast their vote?

LUNA: What you're trying to do is make the people who will vote for you feel good about it, and those who would vote for your opponent feel shamed about it. You tried all the rational arguments. And when the rational breaks down, you have to go to the emotional. At least that's the perception. What the emotional may end up doing is make a lot of the undecided decide I don't like any of these guys and stay home.

CAVANAUGH: What about the mailers? The mailers that I have received have been a little bit more -- seem to be more on a positive note than some of the last-minute TV negative ads that I've seen. Has that been either of your experiences, Sarah?

LIBBY: I've actually seen some pretty negative mailers. I think they run the gamut. They came out from all these various groups, the candidates themselves, various interest groups. But I do think they're literally just throwing everything up at the wall and seeing what sticks. So you'll see positive ads touting their records into really negative things that are completely untrue.


LUNA: My mailers go from my mailbox to my recycling bin.


LUNA: The mailers are one of the least effective ways to hit people. They're cheap. You send them out. But they swing for every mailer, every 10,000 you send out, they swing a couple of votes. But Sarah is right. They're the gamut. They're not just positive and negative. There's some argument that the positive ones are better because people don't like to bring negative into their house. But they're bringing the negative in through the TVs anyway. Whatever works is the approach. But a lot of this stuff doesn't work. Look at the campaigns.

CAVANAUGH: There are some people when I told them we were going to be talking about these ads, called these ads risky. And I think you used that sort of language too, Carl. What is the risk in as well having a candidate's ill daughter support him, or taking the family of a fallen police officer, or a TSA employee who talked about an incident that are not fully explained?

LUNA: It's the queasiness factor. You look at somebody that you might have been supporting but go, if they're that desperate to use this family or that family, it just makes you feel a little queasy about it. And that starts to bring a little shame into it, now maybe you're les likely to support them. In a close race, you skip that box or even vote for the other guy.


LIBBY: I think so. And I think ultimately people don't like to feel like they're being manipulated. And they may see the photos of a slain police officer and these emotional pleas from his family and say I don't like that you're using these people to try to get me to do one thing or another.

CAVANAUGH: Yeah, I can see both. But they pay a lot of money to these people who make these ads. So you figure they know what they're doing, right?

LUNA: It's one of the nice things about a profession that has one or two outcomes. You either win or lose. So I do this campaign, I'm successful, I win. I lose in the next one, don't matter, I get a share of the ad buy. There's a whole industry around these candidates that has grown so large that candidates don't really get a chance to relate to the people as much as they used to. They do have to manipulate and handle. And sometimes refreshing honesty actually works out. Once that works out, I'll package it and use it to manipulate you.


CAVANAUGH: Thank you both very much for talking with me.

LUNA: Thank you.

LIBBY: Thanks.