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As seen on TV: what kind of political advertising can we expect as the race for NY21 heats up

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WATERTOWN — Radio and television advertisements have already begun in the race for New York’s 21st Congressional District. And while the email and postal vitriol has ramped up in recent weeks in the Republican primary between Elise M. Stefanik and Matthew A. Doheny, messages in other media are more positive.

That’s to be expected, according to Shana Gadarian, professor of political communication at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs.

“Generally, campaigns in the early days, especially with new candidates, run positive ads,” Ms. Gadarian said.

Then come the “contrast ads,” in which candidates differentiate themselves from each other. Later we see negative ads intended to dampen enthusiasm for an opponent, according to Ms. Gadarian.

“Negative advertising becomes a necessity as an election draws nearer and the candidates get closer in the polls,” Ms. Gadarian said.

Ms. Stefanik is a first-time candidate. Mr. Doheny has already run twice before for the seat held by Rep. William L. Owens, D-Plattsburgh.

As the candidates work to distinguish themselves with the June 24 primary approaching, it is likely that advertising will turn more negative, in keeping with advertising cycles of past campaigns, Ms. Gadarian said.

And while negative campaign advertising has endured and even grown because it works, the advent of large digital databases has brought unforeseen innovations in the creation and targeting of political ads.

For example, the last presidential election cycle introduced the use of consumer data to understand the voting habits and political persuasions of large segments of the population, according to Ms. Gadarian. Campaigns often use controlled “A/B testing” to figure out which advertisements generate the biggest response.

That technology is often too expensive for local races, even Congressional ones, Ms. Gadarian said. In such races, face-to-face contact between candidates and voters works better in getting people out to vote.

Even so, voters sometimes get turned off the more politicians spend on advertising. But that is often the idea, said Grant Reeher, director of the Alan K. Campbell Public Affairs Institute at the Maxwell School.

Mr. Reeher said that negative advertising is unique among political campaign strategies. Instead of stimulating support for a candidate, it is meant to diminish enthusiasm for an opponent. “When enthusiasm is lowered, turnout is lowered,” Mr. Reeher said.

Responding to negative criticism, candidates often feel compelled to return fire. Mr. Reeher says that strategy makes it a little like a car accident.

“It’s like a game of chicken, except neither of them turns the wheel at the end,” Mr. Reeher said. “They just crash their cars into each other.”

One wrinkle in political campaigns’ evolving digital strategies is interaction with followers on social media. Of the two Republican candidates in the race, Ms. Stefanik leads in Facebook likes, with 6,338 as of Saturday evening. Mr. Doheny has 2,311. Democrat Aaron G. Woolf received 1,209, and Green Party candidate Matthew J. Funiciello got 1,209.

Such numbers may be less consequential than they appear. It all depends on how well a candidate uses social and digital media to mobilize supporters, according to Mr. Reeher.

As an example, Mr. Reeher cited the 2004 presidential campaign in which the Democratic Party, supporting John Kerry, reported having 6 million people signed up to receive party emails. The Republicans, meanwhile, had only 1 million. While the Democrats parlayed that interest into financial support allowing then-Senator Kerry to stay in the race, Republicans used their email list more effectively to motivate volunteers, Mr. Reeher said.

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