Political Advertising and Unintended Consequences

After the latest revelation about Donald Trump, it seems strange to write about anything else related to the presidential campaign, but I’ve been thinking about this for several days, so here it is.

In the wake of last week’s Vice Presidential debate, I read this article from the Washington Post:

Clinton debate prep is focused on what happens once the debate is done

It discusses this ad from the Clinton campaign, which was released mere hours after the debate ended.

Clearly, this informed Kaine’s debate strategy, as he repeatedly (and often awkwardly) said some variation of “I can’t believe Governor Pence is going to defend Donald Trump on this issue.” I suspect the ad was all but ready to go, pending only the video from Mike Pence, who played into their trap nearly perfectly.

I’m not here to talk about politics, though, except in the sense that I wonder if this sort of ad–while clearly effective for Hillary Clinton’s campaign in the short run–is good for our nation’s civic health in the long run. Again, I’m not debating whether these statements by Trump and Pence are “fair game”; they certainly are.

But by using the debate as a venue for producing “gotcha advertising” (similar to “gotcha journalism”), is Clinton’s seeming innovation making it less likely that candidates, who are often reluctant to take the stage to begin with, will debate in the future?

We could argue about whether debates actually serve any real purpose, as they often devolve into little more than constant sniping and bickering, neither of which is good for our civic health either. But they do represent–at least in theory–one of the few times when the candidates appear together and at least attempt to talk about real differences of philosophy and policy. In that sense, I would argue that they are important and meaningful, imperfect though they are.

Of course, this could turn out to have just the opposite effect. Going forward, both parties will adopt this tactic, and candidates will know that they have to be prepared to defend previous statements with more than just a flat denial, lest they be made to look foolish. As Glenn Beck pointed out, “We’re not living in the 1800s. We can go back to the clips on YouTube.” Yes–sources matter!

We can’t predict the future, of course, but thinking historically, I wonder what the long-term (possibly unintended) consequences of this will be.


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