Oh, the fine line of “advocacy” or “comparative” political campaign advertising as compared to “negative” advertising.
We’ll see it soon in the 4th Congressional District race between Republican Mia Love and Democrat Doug Owens.
Owens is behind in the polls in this open seat race – 44-32 percent for Love in an early July poll for UtahPolicy.com by Dan Jones & Associates.
Owens is behind in fundraising.
And the new 4th District leans Republican in its voting patterns.
If Owens just sits back and runs what may be called a “positive” campaign, he’s surely going to lose.
Love barely lost to retiring U.S. Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, two years ago.
It’s generally believed if she had run a better campaign and had a bit more money, she could have knocked off the popular, conservative Democrat.
Owens’ challenge this year is to run a better campaign than Matheson did two years ago, and do it for less money.
No easy task.
Love’s challenge is to counter any negative campaigning of Owens; to stop him from defining her as a wacky, archconservative Tea Party-type who will hurt Utahns more than help them in the highly partisan-charged halls of Congress.
In the recent UtahPolicy.com poll by Jones, Jones found that 43 percent of 4th District voters have an unfavorable opinion of Love – a leftover handicap from all of the negative advertising (much of it not from Matheson, but from pro-Democratic groups) run against her in 2012.
That’s a real soft underbelly vulnerability that Owens hopes to exploit.
But as former Salt Lake County Democratic Mayor Peter Corroon found out in his 2012 governor’s race against Republican Gov. Gary Herbert, negative campaigning, along with constant harping about one’s opponent, can certainly backfire in Utah.
To some extent, negative campaign works here.
Maybe not as much as in some other states or locales.
But it works.
The difficult part is to determine, in the heat of a political campaign, where that line of negative campaigning backfire lies.
Cross it, and the benefits to you slow, then stall, then drop.
You may bloody your opponent. You may damage her.
But if you are not closing the gap between her support and yours, then negative campaigning will just turn voters off.
There will be less turn out at the polls.
Voters are disgusted with the both of you.
Now, in a heavily Republican district, this may actually be an asset.
The die-hard GOP/conservative voters – who have cast ballots year in and year out for decades – will still so up on Election Day.
And they will vote for their party candidate.
It will be the casual, or occasional, voter who will stay away.
Moderate Republicans and independents – much needed by Owens – voted for Matheson because they liked him; because they liked his moderate, anti-partisan actions.
On its face, Owens may believe that if he paints Love as an archconservative Tea Partier, one out of step with Utahns who want Congress to work, he can capture that Matheson vote.
And thus is the way to victory.
But 52 percent of 4th District voters have either not heard of Owens, or have heard of him but have no opinion of him, Jones found.
That means his is a blank canvass.
And if what voters hear is negativity from Owens that is not a color well received.
So, the traditional playbook says Owens starts with ads showing him a good family man, dedicated to traditional Utah values, etc., etc.
If he feels he’s not closing on Love, then he starts talking about her, not himself.
Already, as seen in the first – and perhaps there are only two – debate, he tried to paint her as another U.S. Sen. Mike Lee – who has a disapproval rating of 45 percent, very high for a Utah officeholder.
Ultimately, however, Love will stand on her own before voters, no Mike Lee on the ballot.
So, let’s watch with interest how Owens goes about painting himself – and almost assuredly Love – over the next four weeks.
It will set the tone for the 2014 4th Congressional District race.