NY-22 Minute: Turnout Explains Tenney Going Negative By Luke Perry

NY-22 Minute: Turnout Explains Tenney Going Negative By Luke Perry

Campaign strategists are well aware of the electoral benefits of what Political Scientists call “going negative.” While candidates may enter a race with the intention of running a positive campaign, dynamics and challenges usually make that hard to do. Claudia Tenney has strategically opted to go negative early in the NY-22 campaign. This piece will examine arguments for and against this approach.

The argument for going negative early is premised on turnout. Turnout is lower in midterm elections than presidential elections. Midterm voters who are most enthusiastic about voting are those unhappy with the current president. This trend typically hurts the party in power, Republicans in this case. The pertinent questions become: how many seats will be lost? Where? And why?

NY-22 has become part of the national conversation of “where” lost seats might be found in 2018. Consequently, Tenney may be personally attacking Anthony Brindisi to generate enthusiasm among her base so they will turnout in sufficiently large numbers for her to win.

Fear and anger are powerful motivators. Donald Trump proved how effective branding can be in creating negative impressions of his political opponents (“Lyin Ted,” “Crooked Hillary”). Tenney may be prioritizing branding Brindisi so early to maximize the benefit of this strategy as moderate Republicans begin to consider whether they would cross party lines and vote for Brindisi.

Trump also demonstrated how saying outrageous things generates a large amount of earned media coverage. This has been echoed by recent scholarship, which has found that more extreme political views prompts greater print media attention for members of Congress than moderate views.

Tenney’s interview with USA Today, the most circulated newspaper in the country, illustrates this. The exact genesis of the story is not public knowledge, but the final piece was clearly focused on Tenney’s comments regarding Brindisi’s father. Without them, the story may not have happened.

Earned media is less of a concern in the NY-22, where elected officials can write op-eds or say what they want without media organizations typically fact checking them. Still, recent news cycles have Tenney on the offensive, Brindisi on the defensive, and widespread attention focused on a potentially damaging element of Brindisi’s candidacy.

I suspect Tenney’s campaign understands this as success. People can decide for themselves whether this tactic is appropriate, but it would be shortsighted to dismiss it as irrational or ineffective.

The argument against this approach is that about 90 percent of House incumbents will likely be reelected next year. Even if things go poorly for Republicans, over 80 percent of incumbents will still probably be reelected. Those are great odds for incumbents.

Yes, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has targeted the district and The Cook Political Report has deemed it more competitive. This was part of an effort to identify districts that may be vulnerable. That’s different than trying to predict who will win. This race is Tenney’s to lose, given incumbency advantage and the GOP voter registration edge in the district.

Emphasizing one’s work in the district, particularly “bringing home the bacon,” would typically be the main focus of someone in Tenney's position. Most incumbents would also avoid comments about family, which is typically off limits, and opens her to a new line of criticism.

The greatest risk is that this tactic will alienate moderate Republicans, who Tenney also needs to win, and have never wholeheartedly embraced her. The Richard Hanna faction of the NY-22 GOP is less moved by these appeals. The extent to which past Hanna supporters are now turned off and/or offended by Tenney's personal attacks will ultimately determine the success of this approach.

It’s also important to recognize that this is a local race, not a national one. Many people know Brindisi, particularly in Oneida County, a major focus for both candidates. Trying to rebrand someone people know is much more difficult than someone they don’t. There also appears to be less appetite for mudslinging just six months after the most negative presidential campaign in modern history and 18 months out from Election Day.

Claudia Tenney’s personal attacks are best understood as strategic, like most aspects of campaigns. This tactic was a bold and unconventional move. Calculations about risks and rewards will become clearer as the campaign continues to unfold.

Upcoming pieces will examine Heath Phillips joining the race and how the Brindisi campaign is handling issues thus far.


Luke Perry (@PolSciLukePerry) is Chair and Professor of Government at Utica College. 

Read the NY-22 Minute for timely and comprehensive analysis of the campaign. 


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