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But those changes have come with a sour aftertaste. Williams believes the 24-hour news cycle has "altered America's perception of government" through tireless stories about "something bad happening." Republicans and Democrats alike have spent 30 years "denigrating government and politicians," he says, leaving voters distrustful of both. The internet is particularly rife with negative politicking. Montanans for Tester recently rolled out a new website, rehbergair.com, which offers voters detailed information on 13 luxury trips Rehberg has taken, allegedly on the dime of special interests. The site is designed like a vacation planning page, with links to "five-star dining and drink" and "premium shopping." "Life is good for a career politician with powerful friends," the site states. "But if you're a Montanan who doesn't have lobbyists and special interests eager to send you on 13 luxury trips, you are probably out of luck."
Social networking has opened the door for attacks especially wide. Much of Rehberg's Facebook wall and many of his tweets either refute "the latest liberal attack" or decry Tester's voting record, portraying the incumbent as Obama Lite. The dialogue has increased in frequency not just between candidate and voter, but indirectly between candidate and candidate.
"People expect that if the opponent levels a charge or says something negative about another candidate, they expect that candidate to have a quick response within 24 hours," Vaughey says. "There's a dialogue voters are watching between candidates, and that's interesting."
Andrea Marcoccio, CEO of Forward Montana, a nonprofit organization dedicated to training and electing young leaders in the state, calls it the "24-seconds-ago news cycle." Social media, and its increasing role in political campaigns, has made it easier for people to catch a candidate's mistake, then hone in on it. "I think we've seen it be detrimental to individuals or campaigns," says Marcoccio, who also worked as a field organizer in Montana for Obama's 2008 campaign. "They say the wrong thing and that becomes the focus for a month, because of a 24-character comment."
The occasional ding on a campaign is well worth the payoff though. Marcoccio thinks voters—especially young voters—are now more exposed to political news and opinion than ever before.
"Ultimately, I think it's information and it's opinion and it's power. I think it's awesome because more young people have access to articles they wouldn't necessarily go and read in The New York Times."
And then there's TV
The camera pans in on a ramshackle Western town. Scraggly weeds sprout at the bases of slat-wood buildings. Digitized dust blows past the screen. An old-fashioned wanted poster has Rehberg's picture, complete with cowboy hat, plastered between the words "Congressman Rehberg, what's wrong with Washington."
The voiceover is ominous, and touches on a key attack point that the left has leveled against Rehberg this year: his voting record on congressional pay raises. The ad, which cost $197,191 to produce and air, is one of two so far paid for by Patriot Majority USA, a 501(c)(4) that touts itself as a group "encouraging a discussion of economic issues in the United States."
Television ads are one of the oldest tools in the campaign toolbox. They provide affordable, easy access to thousands of voters. Based on station ratings, candidates and third parties can gauge roughly how many viewers a single message reaches. And broadcast advertising hasn't lost its touch in the new media world, even colonizing YouTube and Hulu. This spring, the National Republican Senatorial Committee reserved about $3 million worth of Montana airtime for fall 2012. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee followed in lockstep with an additional $3 million. Montana television will be choked with ads from campaigns and outside allies come October.
Even within the microcosm of television advertising, however, there are intricacies at work. Campaigns typically start a cycle by introducing their candidate to voters. It's a positive affirmation of character. According to a spokesman for the Montana Democratic Party, "There's an incentive to introduce a candidate through a positive ad at first, then develop a bit more of a contrast as time goes on."
The first few ads from the Tester campaign were notably character-driven: Tester fixing the combine, Tester visiting a disabled veteran in the hospital, Tester packing Montana beef with him to D.C. The last one ends on a shot of Tester and his wife eating hamburgers. "I'm Jon Tester and I approve this message," the Senator tells the camera. "And I approve of Sharla's cooking, too."
Rehberg's first ad was a stark contrast. The ad opens with a shot of Tester and the line "Jon Tester's dishonest attacks hide his votes for higher taxes—55 times." Only in the campaign's fourth ad did Rehberg, shown driving a Jeep Wrangler past the U.S. Capitol, introduce himself as a candidate "guided by what's best for Montana."
"The purpose of most political advertising today is to tear down the opponent, and interestingly enough people accept that," says former Montana congressman Pat Williams. "They buy it. They like it. Ads ought to be for the purpose of telling the public what the person paying for the ad—that is, what the candidate—will do for them, not 'why my opponent is a bigger SOB than I am.'"