If you watched any television, or listened to any radio in the weeks and months leading up to the November elections, you may have noticed that most members of the United States Congress are bitter partisan dividers, vicious schemers, self-interested bloodsuckers, Bush-Cheney sycophants, heartless criminals, and all-around nincompoops. That’s the picture that their opponents’ campaign ads painted. In many cases, the viewer was left with virtually no idea of who that challenger actually was or what he stood for, save for the fact that he or she “approved this message,” coincidentally while standing before a blustering American flag.
In every campaign season, politicians skewer one another through every device that technology will allow, and on every imaginable subject. Political contests are reminiscent of hyenas fighting over a rotting animal carcass. The rancorous tone leaves voters with the unpleasant task of picking up the pieces and sifting through the remains to make the decision between bad and worse when they cast their ballots, if they do at all. Tedious mudslinging contributes to an ever-growing apathy toward politics. In the last forty years, voter turnout in both Presidential and midterm elections is down, on average, by ten percent. A trip to the voting booth, for many, has become as appealing as one to the dentist for a root canal.
While negative ads seem more plentiful than ever, the phenomenon is by no means a novel one. Political attacks have been an unmistakable feature of American campaigns since the days of knickers and tricorn hats. Throughout the 19th century, candidates were lambasted by their rivals’ supporters, from the 1828 election when Andrew Jackson was called everything from a “murderer” to a “cannibal” to 1860 when Abraham Lincoln was labeled a “stupid ape.” The monkey business continued in 1884 when the exposition of Grover Cleveland’s illegitimate child with a prostitute brought chants of “ma, ma, where’s my pa?” from the Republican rank and file. Democrats chanted “burn this letter” at Cleveland’s opponent, James Blaine, mocking the words he wrote to an associate with whom he was involved in a graft scandal. The voters that year decided that an honest politician with personal demons was slightly preferable to a model family man with a history of corruption.
In the 20th century, negative campaigning refused to relent, and attacks evolved from chants and songs shouted by partisan supporters to blows that originated from the candidates themselves. Harry Truman likened the Republicans to Nazis in 1948, and a 1960 John F. Kennedy ad played a video where Dwight Eisenhower said that it would take a week to think of something that Richard Nixon had contributed to his administration. Scaring the daylights out of voters became a useful tactic in Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 “Daisy Girl” ad that equated a vote for Barry Goldwater with one for nuclear war, in Nixon’s 1972 spot that accused George McGovern of planning to dismantle the military, and in George Bush’s 1988 attack on Michael Dukakis that depicted a prison with a revolving door.
Mean and vicious has always been in. Why does it seem like the toxic stream of negative advertising has turned to a rapids in recent years? Scholars believe that the flow has worsened thanks to an increased dependence on mass media air time. In 1952, less than five percent of campaign spending was devoted to the purchase of radio and television spots. By 1988, that figure had mushroomed to 20 percent. In 1996, the three presidential candidates spent a combined $167.5 million on television commercials alone. In the days of Jackson and Lincoln, most voters were insulated from the firefight since getting the message out was much more difficult. In the modern world, the average American cannot sit in front of their TV, or in their car with the radio on for ten minutes, during the election season, without being inundated with a barrage of ads reminding them why a particular candidate would be a disastrous choice.
2006 was one of the more venomous campaigns in recent memory with non-stop negativity emanating from every corner of the American continent. A particularly nasty race was that for a New Jersey senate seat that pitted incumbent Bob Menendez against challenger Tom Keane Jr. Menendez’s advertising portrayed Keane as a mindless puppet, dangling from the strings of the Bush administration, emphasizing the latter’s votes, as a member of congress, that were in line with the President’s policies. Photos were shown of a smiling Keane whooping it up with a giddy George W., as if the two were enjoying some private joke at the expensive of the public.
The anti-Menendez ads, as those directed at incumbents often are, were far more savage. The Senator was called everything from a liar to a criminal, with charges of investigations, political favors, and shady dealings thrust in his direction. The ads included a distinctly racial current, as Menendez, a Cuban-American was shown in a split screen along with grainy night-vision video of what appeared to be Mexican immigrants running across the border while a voice-over warned that Menendez planned to “give your social security benefits to illegal aliens.” The ads may have left viewers with a nagging fear of running into Bob Menendez in a dark alley, but like most attack ads, gave practically no clue toward what Keane would actually do if he were elected to the Senate.
But hey, that’s New Jersey, where the politics are known for getting as ugly as the view from the Polasky Skyway. Surely in a down home state like Tennessee, the atmosphere was far more temperate.
Or was it? An ad run by a group affiliated with the RNC against congressman and senatorial candidate Harold Ford Jr. gained particular notoriety. The ad sarcastically mocked the African-American congressman, assailing his values through a seedy leather clad character who accused him of taking money from the porn industry, and through a giggling blonde bimbo who bragged that she met Ford at a playboy party. The NAACP called the spot “a powerful innuendo that plays to pre-existing prejudices about African-American men and white women,” a sentiment that can hardly be overlooked in a southern state. Ford’s opponent, Bob Corker said that he did not approve of the ad, but that he did not have the power to get it removed from the air, a dubious claim.
Negative ads and tactics propagated by groups supposedly not affiliated with the candidates themselves provide an all too convenient means to denounce spurious claims but still benefit from them. Like George W. Bush did from the 2000 whisper campaign that his primary opponent, John McCain had an illegitimate “black baby” and from the 2004 “swift boat” ads that questioned John Kerry’s military service, Corker was able to reap the rewards of the anti-Ford attacks without being held responsible for them. The ads, and the national response to them, shifted the spirit of the contest to race, a subject that Ford had been trying hard to avoid. Undoubtedly, the spots played a role in Corker’s victory.
For his part, Ford seemed to take the high road, assuring voters that while the Republicans were focused on bashing him, he was busy worrying about the important matters of the election. Still, the congressman could not help but relate the attacks on his character to Corker’s own. “If I had a dog, he’d probably kick him,” Ford quipped in an ad. That sort of response is common in races across the country by candidates, such as Senator Joe Lieberman in Connecticut, who accused their opponents of being too negative and not focusing on the issues. What those spots do not do, of course, is focus on the issues.
Given the ferocity with which they have been scattered across city streets, country sides, and airwaves throughout the annals of history, it is clear that strategists believe that negative campaigning is an effective way to win elections. Traditional techniques used positive images to build a candidate up, and turned to attacks only in the final days of the campaign. Over the last two decades, though, that approach has been abandoned in favor of one that utilizes the big smear guns from the very beginning. For a challenger, bringing up unflattering records can cut a better-known incumbent down to size. For a frontrunner, convincing voters of an underdog’s lack of qualifications and experience can keep him as one.
Polls indicate that the public is largely repulsed by the attacks. Some 87 percent of voters are concerned about the frequency of negativity in contemporary political ads, while 59 percent are convinced that candidates deliberately manipulate the truth for their own purposes. But not liking an ad and not responding to it are two very different reactions. While voters do not accept the information produced by negative ads as gospel truths, studies show that they do maintain a jaded view of the candidates targeted in the spots. After watching an attack ad against a sample candidate, almost 60 percent came away with a negative impression of him, compared with only 16 percent who withheld a positive feeling. Despite defiling the target, the ad had a damaging effect on its sponsor as well. Almost the same percentage of viewers left with an unfavorable opinion of that candidate.
Not all negative political advertising is created equal. The public distinguishes between its various types, setting standards for what is and is not acceptable. 57 percent believe that charges like voting records, talking to both sides of an issue, taking contributions from special interests, not paying taxes, and current drug and alcohol abuse are legitimate criticisms that are within the boundaries of the game. 61 percent hold that attacks regarding actions of family members, lack of military service, and past drug or alcohol use are instances of foul play. If you’re running for office, don’t ask your opponent if he smoked pot in college. He probably did, and nobody cares.
Candidates resorting to negative attacks are standing on a slippery slope. As long as the mud has soared through the air, politicians have gone too far and suffered the painful consequences. New York was the Florida 2000 of 1884, and James Blaine may have lost the state when a prominent protestant reverend supporter spoke of “rum, romanism, and rebellion,” offending scores of Irish immigrants. Alliteration aside, Menendez eventually cruised to victory this November, thanks, in part, to Keane Jr.’s tiresome over-the-top tactics. Six-term New York congresswoman Sue Kelly was voted out of office after she ran a radio spot that called her rival, John Hall, and a significant portion of her constituents, a “hypocrite” for investing in mutual funds that included drug company stock. Reminding voters that Senator so and so voted for the war only to change his stance two years later raises legitimate doubts about his sincerity. Calling him a lying, cheating, draft-dodging louse who hates babies, puppies, and freedom is reaching far beyond the point of effectiveness.
Is negative ok as long as you stick to the issues? Unfortunately, many of the “facts” purported in negative campaign ads are at best distortions of the truth, and at worst absolute and knowing falsehoods. Jackson was neither a murderer nor a cannibal, nary was Lincoln seen swinging from trees around the capitol, and one would be hard pressed to find a bill where Menendez, or any other Senator, voted to give social security to illegal immigrants. In Florida, a Democratic ad accused Republican representative Clay Shaw of profiting from a “drug deal,” conjuring up images of the congressman exchanging crack vials on a darkened street corner. In actuality, the ad relates his purchase of pharmaceutical stock to his vote for a Medicare drug act. The company he invested in, though, could not have profited from the bill. Twisting newspaper articles has become a popular tactic, from Missouri, where Senator Jim Talent credited statements about his opponent, Claire McCaskill, quoted in a Kansas City paper to the paper itself, to Nebraska where Republican senatorial candidate Pete Ricketts’ campaign used fake headlines for “creative reasons.”
As long as candidates and strategists see attack advertising as a means to the end of winning elections, the bitter and angry tone that envelopes the first Tuesday of each November will continue to ricochet across air signals and bounce off of satellites into our living rooms and cars. Negative advertising may be as much a part of our culture as SUV’s, fried food, tanning salons, and celebrity sex scandals. But perhaps, like the others, it can be enjoyed in moderation. A shift toward more positive messages would not only allow voters to make a more informed and clear-headed choice on election day, but it would re-invigorate them toward the entire realm of American politics.