Oakland Councilmembers Ignacio De La Fuente and Jane Brunner and the Oakland police union have unleashed a series of vicious attack ads in their attempt to unseat Councilwoman Rebecca Kaplan and City Attorney Barbara Parker. The flurry of hit-piece mailers also contain numerous false and misleading statements that grossly distort Kaplan and Parker's positions and their records in office. Kaplan told the Express late last week that her campaign is preparing a mailer to fight back against the false attacks, but Parker's campaign said it likely would not, and plans instead to continue to point to Parker's accomplishments in office.
Positive campaign ads can be effective, but not responding to attacks could prove to be a mistake. Numerous studies have shown that negative political advertising and campaigning works. That's why politicians do it. Research also shows that attack ads are most effective when the candidate being attacked does not respond. There are several recent examples that prove this point.
In the first presidential debate, Republican Mitt Romney aggressively went after President Barack Obama, and Obama didn't respond effectively. Within days, Obama's lead in the polls evaporated. In fact, if Romney wins, the first debate will be main the reason why.
Likewise, last week the Express published an election story about how Assemblywoman Mary Hayashi might win the race for Alameda County supervisor because she's been extremely critical of her opponents, and they have not responded, nor have they mentioned publicly that she was convicted of shoplifting just last year (see "Hayashi Might Win This Thing," 10/24).
Finally, there's the 2010 example of then-Councilwoman Jean Quan relentlessly attacking the perceived frontrunner in the Oakland mayor's race — ex-state Senator Don Perata. Quan's campaign produced numerous mailers that went after Perata aggressively. His campaign didn't respond. Quan then pulled out a narrow victory.
De La Fuente and Brunner are obviously hoping for the same type of turnaround for their flagging campaigns. And the engineer of their hit pieces against Kaplan and Parker is none other than Perata's old campaign manager, Larry Tramutola. If anyone knows from first-hand experience the effectiveness of negative campaigning, it's Tramutola. Indeed, no political operative in the East Bay has had more success attacking opponents than he.
Typically, political campaigns go negative when they're behind. According to a poll commissioned by the Oakland Jobs and Housing Coalition, Brunner was trailing Parker 31 percent to 49 percent as of September 30. De La Fuente was losing 23 percent to 39 percent to Kaplan.
De La Fuente, Brunner, and the cops' union, which strongly supports the two candidates, responded to the bad poll numbers with a barrage of hit-piece mailers against Kaplan and Parker. The numerous falsehoods include a claim by the cops' union that the Oakland City Attorney's Office under Parker's command spent $10 million on outside attorneys in 2011/2012. In truth, Parker's office spent $3.86 million on outside attorneys in 2011/2012, city records show. The mailers from the cops' union and Brunner also fail to disclose that the Oakland City Attorney's Office has been forced to hire outside attorneys to represent the city in lawsuits because Brunner and the city council have repeatedly slashed the number of city staff attorneys in so-called "cost-cutting" moves. The mailers also fail to note that much of the outside attorneys' costs stem from the city being sued for police officer misconduct. One of Brunner's mailers also claims that she will hire police officers by saving $10 million in the City Attorney's Office, but the mailer fails to note how she would achieve such savings, and it doesn't mention that she voted for the police layoffs in 2010. Doug Linney, Parker's campaign manager, called the mailers "bogus."
The hit pieces from De La Fuente and the cops' union against Kaplan are also extremely misleading. They essentially blame Kaplan for the city's crime spike in the past two years, contending that she was preoccupied with other issues. The mailers fail to disclose, however, that De La Fuente was the primary backer of the police layoffs, which occurred before the crime spike and resulted in the department being understaffed. The mailers also don't mention that Kaplan voted against the police layoffs, nor do they disclose that De La Fuente and Brunner helped torpedo a plan last year by Kaplan and other councilmembers to rehire all the cops who had been laid off in 2010 who were still looking for jobs.
"The real scandal is that he cut the cops, and now he's trying to fool people into thinking that I cut the cops and I caused the crime crisis," Kaplan said, referring to De La Fuente. "This really shows a level of desperation on his point — and it comes on the heels of polls that show I have a significant lead in the polls."
It's clear that De La Fuente, Brunner, and the cops' union decided to go negative because they were behind, but why tell falsehoods about their opponents and grossly distort their records? The answer is simple: because it works. Romney and Paul Ryan are living proof of how lies and distortions can be a path to victory. And recent research shows that if campaigns tell lies often enough, people will believe them, especially in the absence of any information that counters the lies.
This is especially true for so-called low-information voters — voters who don't pay close attention to politics and don't read newspapers regularly. Oftentimes, the only political information these voters receive during the course of a campaign is political advertisements. In local elections, that means mailers. And if they get a barrage of mailers that spout falsehoods about certain candidates, then these voters are more likely to believe those lies — especially if the candidates being attacked don't respond with mailers of their own.