Barrage of Negative Ads May Haunt President-Elect

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John Geer, one of the most thoughtful and engaged U.S. political scientists, is a fan of negative campaigns.

A central tenet of democracy, the Vanderbilt University professor says, “is to criticize those in power.” Further, he notes that casting an informed vote for a politician is like buying a car, requiring knowledge of the good and bad, and the candidate himself will only give you half the story.

Yet even Geer is shaking his head at this year’s race. “This is setting records for the most negative campaign,” he says.

The hundreds of thousands of television commercials broadcast by the presidential candidates are lopsidedly negative; this is the case with 80 percent of those put out by President Barack Obama and 84 percent of those for Mitt Romney.

This is all the more true when it comes to spending by outside groups; the Super-political action committees on both sides, along with business, conservative and labor organizations, are running negative ads more than 90 percent of the time, according to Kantar Media’s CMAG, which tracks advertising.

At the presidential level, Geer says, the negativity is predictable.

“These ads work; it’s a polarized electorate and both candidates offer material. There’s an incumbent with a checkered record and a challenger who can’t even talk about his record,” he says. “That’s a perfect cocktail for negativity.”

Not Worst

Negative campaigning is woven into the U.S. political fabric, and the attacks this year aren’t as vituperative or personally vindictive as in some earlier contests.

They are, however, more pervasive, and define the candidates and contests. Much of the $2 billion expected to be spent on the 2012 presidential race will focus on the handful of closely competitive states, and the vast majority of the money will pay for negative messages.

Campaign strategists of both parties dismiss public criticism. There are innumerable examples that this stuff works and few to the contrary, they say. A study in the American Journal of Political Science last year showed that the more engaged voters, those more likely to vote, are the least offended by negative pitches.

The press often is the greatest perpetrator. If Romney or Obama offers a thoughtful policy prescription in Ohio this week, it will be less likely to get attention, especially on omnipresent cable television, than an attack, the more vitriolic the better.

Some television ads are designed primarily to attract press coverage. Last week, the Obama campaign cut a commercial making fun of Romney for his refusal to list any of the trillions of dollars of tax loopholes he has promised to eliminate, even as he vows to do away with federal funding for public television, including the popular children’s program “Sesame Street” and its icon, Big Bird. This was less an advertising tool than a way to get coverage, including clips rebroadcast on news programs.

This strategy developed in 1964 with a Democratic ad suggesting that Barry Goldwater would start a nuclear war; it only ran once, but got enormous press coverage.

The greatest con job, though, was in 2004 when a group called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, which was funded by wealthy Texas conservatives, produced a series of television commercials questioning the heroic military service in Vietnam of the Democratic presidential candidate, John Kerry. It was sleazy and successful; one search during that campaign found that the phrase “swift boat” received 40 percent more coverage than the Iraq War, then at its height.

Fact Checking

In the last half-dozen campaigns, the media have attempted to bring more accountability by initiating ad watches and fact checks. Geer argues this often has a perverse effect, encouraging ads that will get attention with little penalty for lack of veracity.

Along with legitimate criticism of the other side, campaigns should set predicates for governing. Ronald Reagan did so in 1980, as did Bill Clinton in 1992 as well as, for the most part, Obama four years ago.

This campaign, with little more than three weeks to go, has been a failure on this score. The winner will face huge challenges: a possible national security crisis with Iran, persistent instability in South Asia, and domestically, the need for unpopular actions on taxes and entitlements, and decisions on whether and how to alter Obama’s health-care law enacted last year. There is little that either side offers on the stump, and nothing in the television commercials, that deals with these realities, positively or negatively.

Obama savages Romney’s record of shipping jobs overseas as a private-equity executive and for holding bank accounts in Switzerland and the Cayman Islands. Last week, a new commercial criticized an earlier investment in Huawei Technologies Co., the Chinese telecommunications giant, charging that the Republican nominee was “putting profits for China ahead of security for America.”

Romney, in an ad, suggests that Obama is falsely accusing him of proposing a $5 trillion tax cut. Actually, Romney has proposed a $4.8 trillion tax cut. He claims that would be offset by closing loopholes but refuses to tell voters what they would be and draws phony analogies to a successful reform of the tax code under Reagan.

One of these candidates will wake up president-elect on Nov. 7 and may try to claim a mandate he doesn’t have. “We now have an excess of negativity,” says Geer, the would-be defender of negative campaigns.

(Albert R. Hunt is Washington editor at Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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To contact the writer of this column: Al Hunt in Washington at ahunt1@bloomberg.net

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