INDIANAPOLIS — One of Indiana's most expensive Senate primaries is being fought on the airwaves because negative advertising works.
The grim visage of hawk-nosed Indiana Treasurer Richard Mourdock, the slightly glazed look from U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar, the ominous synthesizers and the gray-scale photography have defined the battle for Indiana's U.S. Senate seat more than anything else.
Lugar's latest attack points to a complicated property tax dispute and argues of Mourdock: "The more you know him, the less you trust him." Mourdock, meanwhile, counters in his most recent blast: "When Dick Lugar moved to Washington, he left behind his conservative Hoosier values."
The negative ads are working. A new Mourdock-commissioned poll that shows him narrowly beating Lugar also shows that more Hoosiers now know him and they're fairly split: Half of that increased recognition is negative and the other half is positive.
Lugar's recognition among voters — an indispensable concept in politics known as "name ID" — is about as close to universal as anyone gets, but the blast of ads has dented even his image.
According to OpenSecrets.org, Lugar has already spent $5.4 million and Mourdock has laid out $1.7 million with two weeks left in the Republican primary battle. That's not accounting for the myriad super PACs and national interest groups that have descended on Indiana.
Much of that money has been spent on a barrage of negative ads that have aired continually statewide for the last few months.
Even in the stated age of social media and online fundraising, broadcast attacks still hit infinitely harder. Mourdock's official Twitter campaign account stood at a relatively paltry 2,238 followers at the end of last week, and Lugar had 4,472 followers for his account. Likewise, a scouring of the same campaign ads playing online shows hits in the hundreds and thousands — the Lugar campaign's latest broadcast blast has been viewed only 158 times online.
The numbers are a pittance compared with the reach of Indiana's television stations, and the campaigns have invested their money accordingly: Lugar and his surrogates had out-blasted Mourdock and his supporters on the air 2-1, spending roughly $3 million to the opposition's $1.7 million as of last week.
As the Democratic Party's pick for the seat, U.S. Rep. Joe Donnelly has kept his head low while his party has pounded on both candidates.
"Richard Lugar and Richard Mourdock are taking a back seat in their own campaign," said Indiana Democratic Party spokesman Ben Ray. "Hoosiers deserve better than campaigns dictated by hundreds of thousands of dollars in negative advertising bankrolled in secrecy."
But not all the money has been spent on bombardments.
"In a close race, the ground game is your margin," said Indiana Republican Party spokesman Pete Seat. "And close is what I think this race is. The ground game could very well be the margin."
He noted the massive amount of ad spending on each side effectively cancels out, leaving each campaign's less-easily quantified organization of volunteers and activists as the deciding factor.
To that end, Lugar has touted the otherwise mundane this year: the 1.1 million phone calls his campaign has made thus far and the 30,000 yard signs it has handed out. Mourdock's campaign website touts the roughly 2,000 volunteers they say are signed up for battle.
If the air war is what has built a level battleground for Lugar and Mourdock, the ground war could be the final push that determines who wins May 8.