Want to Elevate Politics? Accentuate the Negative


National Journal, September 23, 2000

The loud noise you heard in the first two weeks of September was the roar of another high-minded political orthodoxy spontaneously combusting. For a while, now, growing numbers of sophisticates have understood that attack ads can be good for politics. What September demonstrated is that stigmatizing attack ads is bad for politics. The prejudice against negativism hobbles challengers and dumbs down campaigns, which is exactly the opposite of what discourse improvers say they want to do.

In September, George W. Bush took his bearings and discovered that he was the underdog in the presidential race. In point of fact, Bush had been the challenger all along, but by September the polling numbers had caught up with reality. He then did what challengers often need to do to persuade the voters to eject an incumbent party and a sitting Vice President. He "went negative."

Earlier this year, in a Brookings Institution book called Crowded Airwaves: Campaign Advertising in Elections, Kim Fridkin Kahn and Patrick J. Kenney, political scientists at Arizona State University, published a study of 594 televised political advertisements run by 161 Senate candidates in 1988, 1990, and 1992.

They found that 41 percent of the ads contained criticisms of the opponent, which made the ads "negative." Republicans and Democrats were equally likely to use negative ads, but challengers were much more likely to go negative than incumbents were. That is not surprising, because challengers, write Kahn and Kenney, "need to explain to potential voters why the sitting Senator should be replaced." The study also found that not all negative ads were alike: Some attacked the opponent's character, but the large majority criticized the opponent's record or leadership.

Kahn and Kenney then asked how negative advertising affected voters' knowledge of the issues and candidates. The authors applied statistical techniques that corrected for many confounding variables in each race, such as news coverage, voters' education levels, campaign spending, and even candidates' gender (because women candidates are rarer, they have an easier time getting noticed). They found that negative ads did little to help incumbents but significantly increased challengers' name recognition, "even controlling for a host of rival forces." Thus, Kahn and Kenney write, "Negative advertisements actually serve as a resource for challengers."

Well, anyone can put his name in play by throwing mud. But what was typically being thrown was not mud but comparative information. Where negative ads were most common, voters knew the most about the candidates' ideologies. Where only negative ads aired, voters were half again as likely as in all-positive races to be able to identify the themes of the campaign correctly.

That accords well with the findings of a study (also published in Crowded Airwaves) by Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Paul Waldman, and Susan Sherr, all of the University of Pennsylvania. When they looked at ads from 1952-96, they found that attack ads carried a bit more policy content than did contrast ads (which contain both positive and negative material), but that both carried significantly more policy content than did advocacy ads. This makes sense, if you think about it. Positive ads tend to feature anodyne candidates pictured with family members and dogs while soaring violins and images of wheat fields and flags pluck the heartstrings. Negative ads usually need to make a point. They instruct.

But does negativity sour the electorate and depress turnout? A recent overview of available studies found no clear evidence to that effect, and Kahn and Kenney found that informative negative ads actually increased turnout. "If you're providing information and you're doing it in a civil manner," Kahn told me, "then people pay attention to it, and it increases their likelihood of voting."

Hmm. So-called attack ads (the phrase itself is a slur) empower challengers. They also inform. Attacks on attack ads, on the other hand, do not inform. What, then, would be a good way to deflect a race from substantive issues while also hobbling challengers? Answer: Obsess about attack ads and attack candidates who use them.

So along came George W. Bush just before Labor Day with an ad in which a woman is heard complaining that Al Gore is "reinventing himself on television again." Meanwhile, on a television set, Gore is seen visiting a Buddhist temple that became the center of a fund-raising controversy and then is shown telling an interviewer that he took the initiative in creating the Internet. "Yeah," says the unseen woman, "and I invented the remote control."

On Sept. 1, The Washington Post went top-left of the front page with "GOP Goes on Attack in New Ad." The New York Times' off-lead and top political story was headlined "Bush Approves New Attack Ad Mocking Gore." (Deep inside the paper, on page A16, ran "Cheney Urges Rethinking Use of U.S. Ground Forces in Bosnia and Kosovo" and other such trivia.) The next day, at an impromptu press conference, "reporter after reporter sharply questioned" Bush about the negative commercial, reported The Times. The second-day Times story again ran above the fold on page one: "Bush Defends Ad That Assails Gore."

Bush, of course, was thrown off stride. So, however, was substantive discussion, and not by accident. To avoid distracting the voters with issues, Gore canceled a health care speech, while the Democrats pulled back their own negative ad—which was pointed and substantive—questioning Bush's record on children's health care in Texas. Then a sad, sad Sen. Joe Lieberman, Gore's running mate, went forth to condemn Bush for diverting the campaign from serious debate: "I'm very sad to tell you that today, rather than focusing on the serious issues before our country, our opponents have hit the airwaves with paid political negative personal attack ads."

The punditocracy had barely finished chiding Bush for getting off message when Act 2 began. The Gore campaign alerted The Times to a Bush ad that, in the course of comparing Gore's prescription drug plan ("Bureaucrats decide") with Bush's own ("Seniors choose"), flashed the word RATS on the screen for one-thirteenth of a second. Actually, the RATS flash had been reported two weeks earlier on Fox News Channel, and no one cared. "But Gore aides decided to stoke the story," reports the Los Angeles Times, "by waiting for the commercial to complete a two-week broadcast schedule before they delivered a slowed-down version of the spot to The New York Times."

On cue, the commotion began. Now the debate was not about Bush's prescription drug plan but about whether the ad for his prescription drug plan was subliminally negative. (Is that worse than overtly negative, by the way?) "The first dozen or so questions at [Bush's] news conference were about the Republican commercial," reported The Times on Sept. 13. Bush had planned to talk about his health care proposals. The punditocracy expressed amazement that Bush had tripped himself up again.

Well, that would be one interpretation. Another would be that two biases are common among the news media and the high-minded: first, that negative ads lack substance and are inconsistent with promises to conduct civil, honest campaigns; second, that Republicans are meaner than Democrats. Gore, by manipulating both biases, had no trouble derailing Bush's attempts to talk about issues while—neat trick—blaming Bush for not talking about issues.

You could say that Bush asked for it when he promised to "change the tone of the discourse," and when he told a high school audience that "politics doesn't have to be ugly and mean," and so on. Many Democrats and journalists framed the issue as one of hypocrisy. Lieberman, sad as always, said, "Governor Bush has sadly changed his tune about changing the tone."

But what was Bush supposed to say—"I promise to run a fair and honest campaign, but I will have no compunctions whatever about fairly and accurately attacking my opponent's record, ideas, and fitness for the world's highest office"? Discourse improvers would have stoned him to death. Nowadays, it is difficult for a politician to avoid pandering to the accepted wisdom that nice guys don't go negative. Challengers, especially, are forced to choose between hypocrisy and defeat.

In September, while everyone was busy being shocked by Bush's negative ads, not many people stopped to notice that both of Bush's controversial spots were civil and made fair points. Moreover, one of them, the drug plan comparison, was the very model of an issue-sharpening comparison ad. In the 389 thirteenths of a second in which it did not display the word RATS, it conveyed a key policy difference. It did more to inform the voters in 30 seconds than fussing about subliminal wordplay and negative advertising did in two weeks.

Moral: Sharp criticism and sharp challengers are good for political discourse. High-minded shibboleths that stigmatize both are not.