Soundbite: In Defense of Attack Ads


When he was editor in chief of Campaigns and Elections, David Mark watched vicious attack ads take down many aspiring pols. But instead of bemoaning the low blows struck in the name of electoral politics, from Swift-boat slanders to friend-of-terrorist smears, Mark is convinced that negativity is a distinctly positive feature of U.S. elections. In Going Dirty (Rowman & Littlefield), he lays out and defends the sordid history of negative campaigning.

Assistant Editor Kerry Howley spoke with Mark in February. A longer version of this interview can be read online.

Q: Is one party more likely to go negative?

A: They are equally likely to be negative, but I think the Republicans are often more effective at it. They know which emotional hot buttons to push—guns, abortion, affirmative action. Democrats aren't as willing to go for the jugular.

Q: What's over the line in 2006?

A: Not much. I think you still want to be careful with somebody's religion. Until recent history, religion was fair game. JFK in 1960 had to fend off questions about his Catholicism. But that really backfires on people now. A good test case will be how Mitt Romney, [Mormon] governor of Massachusetts, is treated in 2008.

Q: Campaign finance reform was supposed to curtail negative tactics.

A: Which speaks to the utter futility of campaign finance reform. All McCain-Feingold did was drive the big money away from the political parties to unregulated groups who were willing to say anything. Outside groups are willing to make charges that campaigns themselves might not want to be associated with. They're much nastier and meaner.

Q: Which you claim is ultimately positive.

A: It is positive to put everything out there and let it be rebutted. Outside groups are willing to put on the record things campaigns themselves aren't, and I think it's best for voters to have as much information as possible about their elected officials and decide for themselves. We live in a great age for negative campaigning because any charge can be rebutted in real time on the Internet. It's up to the voters to do their homework and figure out what they believe and what they don't.

Q: Do you have a favorite ad?

A: In the 1968 presidential race Hubert Humphrey was running against Richard Nixon, and Nixon chose as his running mate Spiro Agnew, Republican governor of Maryland, who had relatively little experience but was known as a dirty, hard-hitting campaigner. He was viewed as kind of a laughingstock even then. The ad simply had the words "Agnew for Vice President?," and the voiceover was a man laughing hysterically. It gets louder and louder and louder and then veers off into a groan. I could watch that over and over again.