Why campaigns go negative, and why we like it

Posted 10/15/08

Paige Ingram The word on the street is Sen. Barack Obama is secretly a Muslim, and Sen. John McCain will soon die of skin cancer. State Rep. Joe Rice …

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Why campaigns go negative, and why we like it


Paige Ingram

The word on the street is Sen. Barack Obama is secretly a Muslim, and Sen. John McCain will soon die of skin cancer.

State Rep. Joe Rice supports juvenile criminals, while his opponent David Kerber wants to let sexual predators prey on innocent children.

At least that’s what some campaign ads would have you believe.

Polls show that when voters hear such claims in TV ads or read them on blogs, they write them off as ridiculous. According to some political science experts, campaigns continue using the tactic because it works.

“It’s much more interesting to watch a fight than it is to watch an election,” said Caroline Heldman, political science professor at Occidental College in Los Angeles. “People tune in more because they’re watching the mudslinging, and that in turn increases the likelihood to vote.”

Negative advertising is effective because people give more weight to negative information, and emphasize potential losses over potential gains, said Meg Campbell, marketing professor at University of Colorado at Boulder.

“The purpose of negative advertising [in a campaign] is to cast doubt on the other candidate,” she said, “because people will weigh the negative information highly, and they’ll be worried that [the ad is] right … and what they might lose if this guy wins.”

Inside the mind of an ad

While the concept of smearing a political opponent is far from new, many trace modern-day tactics to a man named Lee Atwater. Influential in the elections of Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, Atwater is credited with perfecting the tools of “opposition research”— or paying consultants to dig up dirt on candidates, and using that dirt to bury opponents.

In the 1988 Bush versus Dukakis election, that dirt was Willie Horton — a convicted murderer who committed rape and armed robbery while on leave from prison through a weekend furlough program supported by then-Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis. Once this information was exploited in the presidential campaign, the Democrat was irrevocably perceived as soft on crime.

A more recent example is the often repeated association of Obama with former Weather Underground radical William Ayres, an acquaintance from Chicago with whom the senator has served on nonprofit boards.

Joseph Tuman, a political science professor at San Francisco State University, described this as a political tool that plays on Obama being somewhat unknown, and having a different look and name than the typical candidate.

By referring to Ayres as a “domestic terrorist” and implying his connection to Obama, a seed is planted that Obama is unpatriotic and a potential threat. This is emphasized by repeatedly referring to Obama at campaign stops by his middle name, Hussein, to evoke the former president of Iraq.

The approach boils down to an exercise in word association, Tuman said.

“Using language like this creates a dialogue. There’s code in that,” he said. “When I use the name Hussein, it’s reminding you that that’s an Arab name. I’m thinking about 9/11, I’m thinking about jihad and al-Qaida. It’s inviting people to do what we call code searching — as people process what they hear they make an association, so when Obama is said, you think of terrorism.”

Tuman said these kinds of attacks work because they have a level of subtext that plays on fear.

Take Dave Kerber, Republican candidate for state House District 38.

A recent ad accuses him of being soft on sexual predators, based on an ordinance he voted for while on the Greenwood Village City Council.

Although the ordinance, which dictated how close a registered sex offender can live to a school, is one of the strictest of its kind in the state, the ad effectively takes facts out of context to make a negative association.

In a world of short attention spans and quick sound bites, it can be very effective to oversimplify an opponent’s record, said Frank Farley, professor at Temple University in Philadelphia and former president of the American Psychological Association.

“You associate ‘A’ with ‘B’, then personalize [the issue] to ‘B’ and say look at this awful individual,” he said. “Then people start questioning — is there something about this candidate’s character that’s bad, because of this association? Is that a window in to his character that is more important than his words and his deeds?”

Pushing and polling

After Atwater’s death, his protégé, Karl Rove, stepped into the Republican campaign spotlight. Many political analysts agree the goal of both men was to insert cultural wedges into political rhetoric as a way to stir up fear and emotion with controversial topics like prayer in school, abortion and the Second Amendment.

Enter the push poll — a tactic that has more to do with influencing voters than taking their pulse. Arguably perfected by Atwater, this strategy involves asking voters a series of questions over the phone, starting with innocuous topics, but culminating in polarizing “questions” that associate candidates with negative concepts.

“Would it change your opinion of Sen. John McCain if you knew he fathered an illegitimate, black child?” This question came from a now infamous push poll that is cited by many as one of the reasons McCain was defeated in the 2000 GOP primary.

In recent months, state Rep. Joe Rice, who is running for re-election in House District 38, was another target. In this poll, voters were asked if they would be less likely to vote for the Democrat if they knew he supported juveniles who committed violent crimes.

The claim stems from a Rice supported-bill that would have taken away a district attorney’s ability to decide if a juvenile should be charged as an adult, and replaced it with a hearing.

“[Push polls] steer you towards a subjective attitude of the candidate,” said Jim Cole, a political science professor at Metropolitan State University who received the call against Rice. “They’re intended to create responses.”

Whether the effort is successful depends on the voter’s political leanings.

For the hard-core partisans — those who simply pick Democrat or Republican on their ballots — these tactics don’t change minds. According to Mike McDevitt, journalism professor at University of Colorado at Boulder, partisan voters have a hypocritical view of negative ads.

“When you see in polls that people say they hate negative ads, they hate the negative ads that attack their candidates, but they’re probably cheerleaders for the ads that mock their opponent,” he said.

It’s the last-minute, undecided voter — one out of every three registered voters in Arapahoe County — that tend to be influenced by negative campaigning.

“[They work] with people who are caught up in the need to vote, but are not terribly sophisticated in their politics,” McDevitt said.

Are the times a-changing?

In many ways, the campaign tactics of 2008 are politics as usual. However, some argue there is a difference in the way people are responding to the negativity this year. Stefan Forbes, director of the new documentary “Boogieman: The Lee Atwater Story,” thinks negative campaigning has reached a new low.

“It basically says to the public, ‘We think you’re idiots.’ It’s such an insult to the American people,” he said. “[Americans] really want answers [this year,] and [politicians are] trying to make it about fear and smear.”

Farley, the psychologist and Temple professor, agreed. He forecasts the negative ads of this election year will not bring down opponents like they have in the past.

“I think John and Jane Citizen of America don’t want it. They want answers,” he said, referencing the serious issues of health care, foreign policy and the economy that this election’s victors will face as soon as they take office.

McDevitt sees this difficult political climate affecting the rhetoric being used, causing some Republicans to go against their ideological grain.

“What’s interesting right now, is both the Republicans and Democrats are playing up a populist message because of the greed on Wall Street,” he said. “There’s a disconnect [in the Republican voting block]. There’s the Republican elites who want low taxes and low regulation … but they need to downplay that in their populist rhetoric in appealing to the working class.”

Many candidates also seem to be changing their tone. Local politicians throughout the state have begun citing specific bills and other actions on their campaign literature, as a way to back up their claims and promises.

Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Mark Udall, the object of a barrage of negative ads, has gone as far as to mock the negative strategies in his own campaign advertisements.

“Quick. Lock your doors and hide. It’s me, Mark Udall,” the candidate says grimly against a black and white backdrop, in a recent ad.

Referencing the millions of dollars spent to paint him as a villainous “Boulder liberal,” Udall goes on to say he has more faith in voters. His campaign strategy seems to include a hope that voters will use common sense when sorting out the facts from the fiction in the ads.

At the national level, the Democratic National Committee has taken McCain to task for his negative attacks. A recent Web-only commercial features a montage of anti-Obama ads and ends with a clip of McCain, on the campaign trail in 2000.

“If all you run is negative attack ads, you don’t have much of a vision for the future, or you’re not ready to articulate it,” McCain says, in apparent contradiction to his actions today.

While some say these changes hint a paradigm shift in the making, most experts see the same tactics continuing, at least for the forseeable future. And Campbell said the ferocity and frequency is likely to only get worse as the presidential campaign enters its final days.

“Keep in mind,” she said. “It’s in the short run that negative ads are most persuasive.”


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