Going Negative

by Michael Abernethy

1 March 2004


During the 2000 Congressional race, incumbent Anne Northup (R-KY) faced formidable opposition from State Senator Eleanor Jordan. As Jordan gained ground in the polls, Northup began airing ads featuring a video of Jordan on the Senate floor, in which Jordan told her colleagues, “Let’s get on with it. I have a fundraiser at 6 o’clock, and I want to get out of here.” The ad effectively portrayed Jordan as “self-serving.” Ultimately, Northup won her bid for re-election.

While the ad wasn’t the sole deciding factor in the race, it was significant for two reasons. First, it marked a turning point with regard to “momentum.” Second, it typifies the negative campaigning so familiar now in the U.S. During this election year, Americans will be exposed to campaign ads of all varieties, and it is our obligation to be informed enough to distinguish between those that are accurate and those that are not.

In the case of the Northup ad, the aim was distortion. While it is true that Jordan made the damaging comment, the context was omitted. Had voters seen Jordan’s entire speech, they would have known that she was criticizing her fellow legislators for spending three days debating one piece of legislation, at the expense of other pending legislation. Further, her comment about the fundraiser was followed by an acknowledgment of other Senators’ commitments. She was trying to motivate her colleagues to act on a bill so they could all move on to other pressing matters.

Ads that overtly deploy scandal are more distressing, but they’re hardly new. Thomas Jefferson’s carnal relationship with his slave Sally Hemings (and resulting children) became an issue during his run for reelection, and Grover Cleveland, who had fathered a child out of wedlock, was taunted during his campaign with the rhyme, “Ma, ma, where’s my pa?” Even without the surfacing of such outrageous offenses, negative campaigning can still be very personal. Today’s version—of the “Willie Horton” variety—is often traced back to Lyndon Johnson’s famous 1964 “daisy” ad, which implied that a vote against Johnson could lead to nuclear annihilation.

But while media attacks have increased over the past 20 years, paid-for negative advertising is actually on the decline, for two reasons. First, candidates can now rely on others—cable news and talk shows, internet sites—to do their dirty work, allowing them to remain above the proverbial fray. Political columnists like Ann Coulter and Al Franken, as well as political think tanks and lobbying organizations, are all too willing to condemn and ridicule adversaries. Second, identifiable attack ads can be counterproductive. In a presentation to the National Press Club on 17 April 1998, political scientists Richard Lau and Lee Sigelman stated that a review of studies on political advertising led to the following conclusions:

  • negative ads are not any more memorable than positive ads

  • the widespread use of negative ads has the potential to lead to lower voter turn-out

  • negative ads are no more effective in swaying voters than positive ads
    (“Review of the Literature on Negative Political Ads,” Coalition on Campaign Conduct).

  • Kathryn Hall Jameson of the University of Pittsburgh researched what turns voters off. As reported by the St. Petersburg Times (“The Difference Between a Negative Campaign and a Dishonest One,” 1 September 2002), her study determined voters resist ads featuring inflammatory language, discussing an opponent’s personal life, or containing misleading data. She further found that voters were able to distinguish between ads that are negative but fair in their criticism, and those that unjustly attack a candidate. (That said, candidates’ voting histories aren’t exactly open books: some votes are compromised by circumstances, and these are not always corrupt.)

    You’d think that these studies would encourage candidates not to use negative ads. Indeed, this seemed the case when Howard Dean and Dick Gephart recently pulled theirs. However, Stephen Ansolabehere and Shanto Iyengar report in their book, Going Negative: How Political Advertisements Shrink and Polarize the Electorate, that the tighter the election appears to be, the more likely the campaign will turn negative, anyway. Early poll numbers indicate that this year’s presidential campaign will be another squeaker. And already, both Bush and Kerry have released ads accusing each other of being in the pockets of special interest groups.

    Such groups regularly use “issue ads” to state their preferences, with or without candidates’ express “knowledge.” Conservatives came down hard on MoveOn.org when the website featured a subscriber-submitted ad that compared Bush to Hitler (this even though Rush Limbaugh has been comparing the Clintons to Hitler for years). And the Club for Growth, a conservative anti-tax organization, ran ads in Iowa that featured a rural couple complaining, “Well, I think Howard Dean should take his tax-hiking, government-expanding, latte- drinking, sushi-eating, Volvo-driving, New York Times-reading, body-piercing, Hollywood-loving, left-wing freak show back to Vermont, where it belongs.”

    As this lively diatribe illustrates, so long as they don’t endorse a particular candidate, special interest groups can pretty much say what they want. These ads aren’t technically campaign ads, yet they damage opponents’ reputations and credibility. Ads with closing lines such as “Call Representative A today and tell him to quit turning his back on our elderly” imply that A has failed to serve the people, thus making A’s challenger seem a better choice. Recent campaign finance legislation technically restricts the amounts that private groups can spend on such ads, but it will likely be years before the glut of legal challenges to the changes can be resolved.

    At the same time, legislation isn’t the only means to alleviation. We might take responsibility too. For, despite protests in survey after survey that we hate negative advertising, we keep electing those who use it. Sometimes, we have no choice, as when all candidates “go negative,” but more often, at least one campaign remains positive. That doesn’t obligate us to vote for that candidate, but increased appreciation for those who fight fair will send a message to those who don’t.

    One wrench in this process is our apparent love of scandal. The nation practically came to a standstill to hear the O.J. Simpson verdict, and the internet experienced some of its heaviest traffic ever when the Starr Report was published online. Granted, we should know about situations that affect someone’s ability to govern. But does the fact that Bill Clinton got blow-jobs in the Oval Office or Bush used to be a great drinker have much to do with either’s execution of presidential duties? Not really. But our collective fascination with lurid incidents (or even possibilities) tells campaign managers and ad agencies that we are more tolerant of political dirt than we claim in surveys and academic studies.

    Even if we never cease to be captivated by dirt, we need also to focus on substantive matters. In The Ethics of Speech Communication, Thomas R. Nilsen maintains that an audience’s primary ethical obligation is to be educated. With the proliferation of internet campaigning, voters can check out candidate and political party sites, to read position papers for themselves. This is more reliable than turning to media watchdogs for information, as Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) reports that many of these fail to offer critical analysis of ads, and instead present opinions about the tactical advantages or disadvantages of the ads, essentially creating free publicity for candidates whose ads are reviewed. Still, websites such as FAIR, The Campaign Legal Center, and Accuracy in Media do provide analyses of ads as well as campaign issues.

    If you do your research, you’ll learn that, contrary to conventional wisdom, candidates are increasingly different from one another. And this means that our votes have real effects, on education costs, Medicare payments, and municipal funding. Without an accurate assessment of candidates’ positions and experiences, how can we make informed decisions about who will satisfy our particular needs?

    Holding candidates responsible for the content of their campaign ads has an additional benefit: pride in our government. Keep in mind, these people work for us. If a candidate won’t conduct an ethical campaign, why assume he or she will be an ethical servant of the people? In the next seven months, pay attention to campaign ads and educate yourself concerning context and “truth.” Then, come November, make an informed choice.


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