Michael Steele encountered tough financial times in the late 1990s. Though he earned a law degree at Georgetown in 1991, the Maryland Republican failed the bar exams in his home state and in Washington, D.C. As a result, his practice at a large international law firm in Washington was limited in the high-end work it could perform and in the fees it could charge.
Steele eventually struck out on his own, founding the Steele Group, a business and legal consulting firm in suburban Prince George's County, Maryland. It seems the business rarely made a profit; Steele says it encountered financial challenges when clients didn't pay their bills. The firm eventually dissolved, and Steele's personal debts mounted. By 2002, according to financial disclosure reports, he had borrowed $35,000 through a line of credit against his home.
A fuller picture of Steele's money situation at that time remains clouded, due to gaps in his résumé and his unwillingness to detail past finances. What is clear is that while his finances were plummeting, his political star was on the rise. He moved up quickly from local party activist to state Republican Party chairman and, in 2003, to lieutenant governor of Maryland, becoming the first black person of either party elected to statewide office.
Steele is now a candidate for the U.S. Senate. When Democrats raise questions about his past personal money woes, he dismisses them as negative campaigning, suggesting his opaque financial past has no bearing on public policy decisions. "What does it matter to any voter whether or not you paid a bill on time?" Steele asked in a September 2005 radio interview, shortly before declaring his Senate candidacy. "There has to be, I think, a veil of privacy, even around public figures. The expectation is, to run for office doesn't mean I turn over everything I've ever done in my life for you to sit in judgment of. It's one of the reasons why it is very difficult to find individuals who are capable, competent, and committed to public service who want to get into this business."
Steele is hardly alone in his professed outrage at aggressive campaign tactics. Politicians routinely try to shift attention away from issues of public concern, playing the victim of unfair, invasive attacks. But is closely examining a candidate's questionable financial history wrong? Senators, after all, spend hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars. Shouldn't potentially germane information about Steele's financial history be available to voters, who can decide for themselves whether it is relevant to his qualifi¬cations?
Negative campaigning is an issue across the country this fall, in campaigns from Massachusetts to Hawaii and in races down the ballot from U.S. senator to county assessor. As wounded politicians whine that such speech is out of bounds, it's time to stand up in defense of the much-maligned attack ad. In this age of instantaneous information via blogs, round-the-clock cable coverage, and other media, political attacks can be swiftly countered. Any opinion offered about a candidate, no matter how mean, vile, or sinister, can be rebutted immediately and globally. Thanks to such exchanges, voters this year will know a lot about prospective elected officials if they are willing to process multiple sources of information and draw their own conclusions.
Voters Hate Negativity—Except When They Like It
Many people recoil at negative political ads. Indeed, negative campaigning has become a catch-all phrase that implies there is something inherently wrong with criticizing an opponent. It is one of the most bemoaned aspects of the American political system, particularly by academics and journalists who say it lowers the level of discourse and intensifies divisions among voters.
The dim academic view of negative campaigning was reflected in an influential 1999 Political Science Review study by Arizona State University political scientists Patrick J. Kenney and Kim Fridkin, titled "Do Negative Campaigns Mobilize or Suppress Turnout? Clarifying the Relationship Between Negativity and Participation." "Our most troubling finding is that negative or attack advertising actually suppresses turnout," Kenney and Fridkin wrote. "We would even go so far as to say that negative advertisements may pose a serious antidemocratic threat."
Journalists often reach similar conclusions. Take the 2006 California Democratic gubernatorial primary, during which the tactics of candidates Phil Angelides, the state treasurer, and Steve Westly, the state controller, prompted intense criticism. Each sought the right to face off against Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, and the campaign run-up to the June primary quickly devolved into a series of harsh verbal exchanges about the candidates' environmental records, proclivity to raise taxes, and other issues. Angelides won the primary but earned the ire of editorialists for going negative. Among the critics was Martin F. Nolan, a former reporter and editor for The Boston Globe, who wrote in a San Francisco Chronicle op-ed piece shortly after the race, "Negative campaigning reduces turnout and alienates occasional voters who would otherwise consider voting for a fresh face."
This conventional wisdom is dead wrong, argues the Vanderbilt political scientist John Geer, author of the 2006 book In Defense of Negativity: Attack Ads in Presidential Politics. "Journalists and academics think of negative campaigning as personal attacks," says Geer. "I don't particularly worry about it. It's going to take something a little more consequential to hurt this country than some rough 30-second spots."
Geer's research demonstrates that negative ads tend to be more substantive than positive spots, because to be credible they must be better documented and specific. His analysis of television campaign advertising from 1960 through 2004 found that nearly three-quarters of the claims in negative spots involved issues, not attacks on candidates' characters or values. "You can't just attack President Bush for being weak on the economy," Geer says. "You need to be more specific when you attack. You have to say why. For the attacks to work, they have to be based on fact."
There is considerable reason to believe the electorate appreciates negative campaigning. While studies like Kenney and Fridkin's suggest the practice can turn voters off, voting participation statistics demonstrate that the toughest, most partisan races often bring more people to the polls. The 2004 presidential campaign was one of the most heated in recent memory, punctuated by thrusts and parries over Sen. John Kerry's Vietnam service, charges of deadly policy failures in Iraq, and warnings that electing the opposition could lead to further terrorist attacks. That same campaign produced a voter turnout of roughly 60 percent, the highest in 36 years. Kerry's vote total was up 16 percent from Vice President Al Gore's in 2000; President George W. Bush's vote total was 23 percent higher than it had been four years before.
Those numbers fit a historical pattern. Turnout rose during the years following the Civil War, when campaigns were very biting. This was a period when Republicans were accused of "waving the bloody shirt" from the military conflict of recent memory and Democrats were labeled "disloyal" for supporting the Confederacy, or at least being lukewarm on maintaining the Union.
Or consider the infamous 1984 grudge match of a Senate race in North Carolina, where incumbent Republican Jesse Helms faced a stiff challenge from moderate Democratic Gov. Jim Hunt. The candidates raised large sums of money to pay for a full menu of negative campaign tactics: personal attacks, below-the-radar smears by allies, a series of combative debates. For that vitriolic campaign 68 percent of registered voters turned out at the polls. A more modest 60 percent cast ballots in the state's 2004 senatorial race, which coincided with the heated presidential battle. The state's prior Senate race, an open seat contest during the 2002 midterm elections, brought out a measly 40 percent of registered Tar Heel voters.