Don’t touch that remote.

Election season is now underway on television, with political advertising for the 2014 governor’s race featuring a mix of biography, flattery, contrast and an early attack ad.

Political observers say the messaging has only just begun, and campaign finance reports indicate that spending on TV ads will far exceed totals from the 2010 election.

Spending by outside groups – $3.2 million as of early this week, including legislative races – is easily on pace to eclipse the roughly $4 million spent during the entire period in 2010.

It’s unclear how the amount of ad time purchased to date compares with the 2010 election. Ad executives at several Maine TV stations declined to comment on the level of spending and volume of ad buys.

What is clear is that television ads are an expensive but invaluable campaign tool that allows candidates to paint themselves in the best possible light, knock their opponents, or sometimes do both at the same time.

So far, the content of the ads is following a predictable pattern for a gubernatorial election, said University of Maine political science professor Mark Brewer.

“Everything I’ve seen has been relatively well done, which is not surprising given the dynamics of the race,” Brewer said. “Generally the arc of campaign ads is, you see the positive, warm-and-fuzzy stuff at the beginning. As we get closer, there will likely be more specifics in ads and also more attacks, because negative still works.”

Jim Melcher, a political science professor at the University of Maine in Farmington, said he thinks the contrast ad by MaineForward and the attack ad by the Republican Governors Association have come a little early.

“It could be a mistake,” he said. “Mainers can’t really stomach a high amount of negative the way states like New York or New Jersey can.”

All three candidates for governor – Republican Gov. Paul LePage, Democrat Mike Michaud and independent Eliot Cutler – have put ads on the air, and more are certain to follow as Election Day draws closer.

In addition to ads by the campaigns, a number of groups – led by the Republican Governors Association and MaineForward, a political action committee supporting Michaud – have started running ads and have reserved TV time well into October.

“I think it’s becoming increasingly typical the level of funds these outside groups have to spend on races,” said Michael Franz, associate professor of government at Bowdoin College in Brunswick. “The downside is that their messages may not always match up with the candidates’ own narratives.”

A LOOK AT THE AD CONTENT

Each of the candidates has used ads to present themselves in a flattering light.

The first campaign ad released by the LePage campaign, titled “Our Governor,” focuses on a wide array of accomplishments from his first term, including repaying Medicaid debt to hospitals and reforming welfare programs.

Michaud’s first campaign ad, “Millworker,” is a traditional biographical piece. It features old photos of him and describes how he grew up in Millinocket and went to work for the local paper mill. The ad portrays the Democrat as someone who is willing to bring both sides to the table.

The Michaud campaign’s second ad, “Made in Maine,” is a more specific spot that focuses on Michaud’s efforts in Congress to ensure that military uniforms are made entirely in the United States. Michaud highlights New Balance, which has a factory in Maine, as a local company that would benefit from such legislation.

Brewer, the UMaine professor, called that ad the most effective he’s seen in the race so far.

“It features a well-known company, it’s specific and it’s positive,” he said.

Cutler’s first ad, titled “Jobs & the Economy,” highlights his recent business endeavor, Maine Seafood Ventures, which has shipped 5 million pounds of local lobster to Chinese markets.

Cutler’s campaign has since rolled out three additional ads, challenging his opponents to early debates, detailing his property tax reform plan and highlighting his recent endorsement by U.S. Sen. Angus King.

Melcher, at UMaine-Farmington, said Cutler is smart to use King, who is as popular a politician as Maine has seen.

Franz, at Bowdoin, is waiting to see whether the King ad will start moving Cutler up in the polls. A Rasmussen survey conducted shortly after King’s endorsement showed no movement for the independent.

The first ad rolled out by the Republican Governors Association, titled “Unique,” attempts to use criticisms of LePage as strengths. The ad features generic Mainers calling the Republican governor “blunt,” and “not a politician.”

Franz believes that ad has been the most effective because of the way it turns criticisms of the governor into positives.

The second ad by the RGA was the first attack ad of the 2014 race. Titled “Step Back,” the ad targets Michaud over immigration, a key issue nationally, and on welfare policy. The Michaud campaign has called the ad misleading.

The third ad from the RGA, “Greatest Accomplishment,” returns to a positive tone, featuring a number of female LePage supporters talking about the governor’s efforts on welfare reform and on anti-domestic violence measures.

Michaud also has benefited from a pair of ads by political action groups and is almost certain to be the focus of more.

MaineForward, mostly made up of union groups, has spent roughly $1 million so far and is committed to spending twice that.

Its first ad, “Unite,” sought to highlight the differences between Michaud and LePage, but it focuses more on LePage, calling him a “national embarrassment,” and “divisive.”

The League of Conservation Voters also has released an ad that contrasts Michaud and LePage on the topic of protecting water resources. Michaud, the ad says, has made a career out of protecting resources, while LePage has “tried to gut protections.”

VOTERS REMEMBER NEGATIVE

Political action committees and candidates’ campaigns are not allowed to coordinate strategies, which creates a dynamic where candidates can focus on the positive and let others do the mud-slinging.

“If you are a candidate, you want to keep the positive stuff in-house and wash your hands of the negative stuff,” UMaine’s Brewer said.

He also noted that none of the ads from LePage and Michaud, or their surrogate groups, has even acknowledged Cutler.

“Michaud wants to keep the focus on LePage because that gives him the best chance, and LePage doesn’t want to attack Cutler because they need him to take votes from Michaud,” Brewer said.

That puts Cutler at a disadvantage because he doesn’t have outside groups funding attack ads on his behalf. Cutler has said he will not use negative ads, but Brewer said that as the campaign wears on, Cutler may not have a choice. Franz, the Bowdoin professor, said Cutler could benefit if Democratic and Republican groups are successful in tearing the major party candidates down.

Franz said it’s hard to tell which ads are effective. That topic has long been studied by political scientists.

“Positive ads are good because you get to paint the candidate the way you want,” he said. “But voters tend to remember the negative ads.”


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