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Ready, Aim, Backfire: Nasty Political Ads Fall Flat

This year's presidential-election ads could be the most negative since the dawn of the television era, political scientists say. There are more of them, and they are more wantonly misleading.

They may also be the least successful ever.

Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama have both engaged in personal attacks in recent weeks. Sen. McCain's current ads attempt to link Sen. Obama to 1960s Chicago radical William Ayers to back up the McCain campaign's contention that the Democrat is "too risky for America." Sen. Obama's return-fire spots tied Sen. McCain to a 1980s savings-and-loan scandal because of his help in the Senate for one of the executives.

But polls suggest that Sen. McCain isn't only running more negative advertising, he is losing more ground for it.

The rules haven't changed, political scientists say. A deft negative ad, like Sen. McCain's spot questioning the substance behind Sen. Obama's extraordinary celebrity, still can send an opponent reeling.

The roiling economy means that times have. "You can't create a concern that doesn't already exist," says Brookings Institution scholar Darrell West.

Rule No. 1 of negative campaigning is that it must be about an issue that already worries voters. President Lyndon Johnson's infamous 1964 Daisy ad, which implied that Republican opponent Barry Goldwater would use the atom bomb, played to voters' concerns about a nuclear war. George H.W. Bush's 1988 Willie Horton ad against Democratic challenger Michael Dukakis tapped voters' fears about rising crime rates.

But aging radicals and old scandals don't tap today's fears, which may be why they haven't resonated. "Arguing about personal associations pales in comparison" to the current grim economic news, says Dr. West.

Independent studies say a higher proportion of Sen. McCain's ads are negative than Sen. Obama's. And with voters largely blaming Republicans for the economy, polls suggest that Sen. McCain is paying the price for the increasingly negative tone of the campaign. In the past, voters usually divided the blame for negative advertising between both candidates, says Dr. West. Among recent elections, "there's none that come close" to today's one-sided leveling of blame, he adds.

In a stark indication of how that tone is affecting the campaign, the Arizona senator was forced to urge his supporters to be "respectful" of Sen. Obama after the Democratic candidate was jeered at some recent McCain rallies.

In an Ipsos Public Affairs poll released Wednesday, 53% of voters said Sen. McCain engaged in more negative campaigning than Sen. Obama did, while 30% said it was Sen. Obama who was more negative. The disparity was even greater -- 61% to 31% -- in a New York Times/CBS News poll also released Wednesday.

In the Ipsos poll, 57% of voters said the ads aren't effective.

Negative campaigning has been around as long as there have been campaigns, of course. Abraham Lincoln's opponents whispered he was the son of a slave woman. Federalists warned that incest would be taught in the schools if Thomas Jefferson were elected. In 1948, with World War II just ended, Harry Truman compared Republicans to Hitler.

Candidates have found new outlets for their ads since then -- television and the Internet instead of newspapers and broadsides -- and the number of ads has soared. Sen. McCain aired TV ads 5,510 times in 10 key media markets during a Sept. 28-Oct. 4 survey week, reports the Wisconsin Advertising Project, which is run by the University of Wisconsin political science department.

Sen. Obama aired his ads 8,961 times in many of the same markets, and together the presidential candidates spent $28 million on TV time that week. That's $10 million more than President George W. Bush and his Democratic challenger, John Kerry, spent in a similar week in 2004.

Even though voters say they don't like them, negative ads may not be a bad thing, political scientists say. Attack ads are more likely to be about issues than are positive ads. They're likely to contain more information, back up their claims with evidence and delve into details.

Of 14 largely negative ads that Mr. Bush and Al Gore ran against each other in 2000, 13 backed up their claims with some proof, says Vanderbilt University political scientist John Geer, who has examined 795 presidential campaign ads that aired between 1960 and 2000. Of 19 positive ads from the same campaign, only one offered any evidence.

The stronger the attack, the more verification it usually contains, Dr. Geer adds. Sen. McCain's ad about Mr. Ayers, the 1960s radical, includes 13 citations, mostly newspaper reports. Sen. Obama's savings-and-loan ad uses newsreel footage of a Senate committee's rebuke of Sen. McCain.

All that creates a national vetting process: A damaged candidate will be revealed, while a capable candidate will more easily assure the public he or she is ready for the Oval Office.

Economic fears account for some of this year's largely unrestrained negativity. Voters who overwhelmingly tell pollsters that the country is "on the wrong track" are more likely to believe a negative ad than an uplifting message like President Ronald Reagan's 1984 "Morning in America" spot.

But there are other causes for the negative tone. Voters perceive that the stakes are especially high this year, inciting more partisanship and emboldening candidates to make sharper attacks. That's easy when the candidates have distinctly different views about the Iraq war, taxation and medical insurance.

Negativity unchecked tends to amount to more negativity. Ad-watch columns in newspapers shamed campaigns for using inaccurate information when these features first appeared in 1988, but have lost much of their watchdog effectiveness this year, political scientists say. Their reviews, which generally run only once, are overwhelmed by an ad that may air thousands of times. With broadcast outlets and the Internet increasingly partisan, voters also can dismiss a negative review of their candidate's ads as media bias. "There's no penalty for deception. If anything, there are short-term rewards," says Dr. West of Brookings.

Campaigns also increasingly air provocative ads in an effort to generate free media coverage. Sen. McCain ran an ad alleging that Sen. Obama voted for sex education for kindergartners while he was in the Illinois Senate. Sen. Obama in fact had voted for a broad bill that would, among other things, teach kindergartners about sexual predators.

The kindergartner ad was widely derided and ran only briefly. But it prompted hundreds of news stories that repeated Sen. McCain's charge and sent reporters for a fresh review of Sen. Obama's legislative record.

The increasingly negative tone of the campaign isn't likely to be lost on voters, particularly those in the swing-state media markets where the candidates are concentrating their attention. During the Wisconsin project's survey week in late September, the campaigns ran ads 1,991 times in Denver -- about 12 ads an hour -- and 1,300 times in Las Vegas.

Almost all of the McCain ads and one-third of the Obama ads were negative.

For Sen. McCain, those ads are an attempt to find a new message, change the national conversation and turn around the campaign. Dr. Geer, who has written a book titled "In Defense of Negativity," insists that's the price of democracy.

"You have to say what's wrong with the status quo in order to change it," he says.


June Kronholz, The Wall Street Journal. October 16, 2008

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