Attack in the Capital

The Ottawa municipal election is in full swing. While there are some tight races in key wards of the city, the mayoral contest among Larry O’Brien, Jim Watson, Andy Haydon and Clive Doucet is, not surprisingly, attracting the most attention.

And for good reason: each of the candidates has a very different style and their personalities and distinct policy perspectives will shape the direction and tone of the next council. This is also a campaign that has been full of intrigue, innuendo and at least one bright moment: the early exit of popular Bay Ward councilor Alex Cullen, Watson’s weak attempt to make hay of party politics, O’Brien’s apology for being a “complete disaster” in his first term and his bizarre accusations of a conspiracy theory between the Watson and Haydon camps, Doucet’s gentlemanly conduct at a recent debate toward outsider Jane Scharf, all stand out as memorable.

The campaign has also featured interesting experimentation by the leading candidates with new technology to push content and engage voters. O’Brien has an iPhone app, Watson has strong presence across a variety of platforms, and both Doucet and Haydon have done a lot more than the others in engaging voters via Twitter. Ian Capstick, a media strategist and prominent Ottawa blogger, describes some of these approaches here, including what ordinary citizens are doing to participate in the election season online. Kate Heartfield also wrote a good column in today’s Ottawa Citizen.

A recent poll by Holinshed Research Group shows Watson has a strong lead with 36 percent support of decided voter support, compared to 17 percent for O’Brien, 8 percent for Haydon and 6 percent for Doucet. Importantly, 30 percent of survey respondents are undecided, and it is mostly this group that the front-runners will be targeting as they seek to drive momentum in their favour. Two and a half weeks is a long time in an election campaign, and anything can still happen.

Given this period of opportunity, it is thus not surprising to see at least one of the campaigns taking a decidedly negative turn. This morning, O’Brien’s team released an attack ad focusing on Watson’s record and the very bad things he would do to Ottawa if elected.

Attack ads are widely believed to be a turn off to voters, yet there is some evidence that they work and can even be good for the political process. The political scientist John Geer, author of an excellent book on the history of attack ads, argues that depending on their design and context attack ads can increase voter turnout, that they do the important work of highlighting certain political characteristics of one’s opponents that positive ads by those candidates ignore, and that they provide an important test of a candidate’s ability to respond to high pressured criticism. If Watson is capable of responding to the O’Brien camp’s negative campaign with poise and substance, it will make the incumbent’s efforts appear even more desperate.

These are the big questions:

Are the undecideds likely to be moved by a message of fear or are they looking for a more positive motivation? Will the O’Brien ad shift the tide of voter preference in his direction? Will voters take the O’Brien ad as a personal attack on Watson (which it is not) or as a credible and fair critique of his record in government (which is up for debate)? Will Watson, or Doucet and Haydon for that matter, go negative themselves? Will O’Brien turn up the pressure and attack Watson’s personal characteristics if an attack against his record proves ineffective?

It’s hard to know how voters will respond since we have to evaluate not only the ad itself, but also the massive amount of other information already in the media environment. How voters react will also be determined by how O’Brien’s opponents respond and what the incumbent does next.  We have two and a half weeks to find out.

MORE INFORMATION: If you want to check out ads from the other mayoral candidates, click on the links below.

Jim Watson’s YouTube page here

Clive Doucet’s YouTube page here

Andy Haydon does not have a YouTube page but you can visit his blog here

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3 Comments

Filed under Politics, Public Relations

3 responses to “Attack in the Capital

  1. Michael Dorland

    Good way to put that sabbatical to use. Nice reporting too!

  2. Thanks for the thoughtful overview Josh. I agree that attack ads can expand the subject field of a political debate, but whether or not they do so *helpfully* is where I might quibble. Or rather, they *might* be helpful if they really stuck to contrasting an opponent’s stance on public policy, but they rarely do.

    The problem is, too often attack ads reduce the level of the political conversation by using:
    1) Below the belt innuendo: as in going after a candidates’ non-policy actions or characteristics – thankfully not as common here as in the US;

    2) Mockery: as in reducing opponents to caricature (there’s a bit of that here with the photo they chose of Jim W), or

    3) Scare-mongering: as with the O’Brien example, trying to paint the opposition as an evil force with secret motives (oooh, he’s got Toronto connections!).

    Great discussion.

  3. Jonathan

    I agree with Dennis above but it’s also important to know that much of the value of attack ads, and many political ads, is not in their message or content but the earned media they receive. Many ads barely see the light of day (think “Daisy”) but live on in infamy long after through media reporting.

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