Attack Ads Are Good for You!

In praise of negative campaigning


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.

As Michael Barone, co-author of the Almanac of American Politics, noted shortly after the 2004 election, "Enthusiasm in politics usually contains a large element of hatred."

Ugly Truth Tellers

Few if any officeholders will openly admit to negative campaigning. To candidates, criticizing an opponent's voting record is properly called comparative advertising, and spotlighting a rival's marital infidelity is merely raising character issues. Campaign tactics that to one voter seem misleading, mean-spirited, or immoral can impart to another important and relevant information about how the candidate would perform under the pressures of public office. Negative campaigning, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

Voter distaste for negative campaigning is understandable, if only because the form and content of political ads are so different from what people usually see in commercial spots. Anyone peddling breakfast cereal needs to be careful about criticizing competitors too overtly or else run the risk of turning off consumers. Rarely do product advertisements include direct comparisons to rival products, and when they occur the contrasts are usually mild and fleeting. As a result, viewers are often shocked at the stark criticisms offered in political ads, particularly when they're sandwiched between softer spots.

This year the contest for control of Congress features some of the toughest negative tactics. Democrats must pick up six Republican seats to regain control of the Senate, a formidable task. The most competitive possibilities, party strategists say, are probably Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Ohio, Montana, Tennessee, and Missouri. To take over the House of Representatives for the first time since 1994, Democrats need to win 15 seats. While that number may seem small in a body of 435, districts are gerrymandered to favor one party or the other to such a degree that turning over just one seat is a considerable challenge.

Each race has its own local nuances, but some negative campaign themes are pervasive. Republicans contend their opponents are soft on terror and itching to raise taxes. Democrats portray Republicans as surrogates for President George W. Bush, trying to weigh them down with the burden of his low approval ratings; they cite the Iraq situation, high gas prices, stagnant wages, and scores of other issues. Republicans often try to neutralize such criticism by accusing the Democrats of "pessimism"—a charge heatedly denied by members of the minority party, who describe themselves as tellers of difficult truths.

The pessimism taunt is a time-honored way to duck fair questions, says William G. Mayer, a political scientist at Northeastern University. "This year, you will see a lot of Democratic ads talking about the failures of the Bush administration," he explains. "Some of those make quite valid points." Even in cases where charges contain only a kernel of truth, he argues, they raise important issues voters otherwise might not have considered. Positive ads, featuring happy family pictures and lists of accomplishments, do not provide enough information for voters to make informed decisions. What a candidate chooses not to discuss is usually as important as what he or she prefers to emphasize.

"No candidate is likely to provide a full and frank discussion of his own shortcomings," Mayer wrote in his seminal 1996 Political Science Quarterly article "In Defense of Negative Campaigning." "Such issues will only get a proper hearing if an opponent is allowed to talk about them by engaging in negative campaigning." Challengers in particular must go negative to demonstrate the flaws in the policies supported by the incumbent and show how they would do things differently.

Credit Crunch in Maryland

Although Michael Steele is not running as an incumbent, it's not surprising that Maryland Democrats would push hard to find information that reflected poorly on him as his Senate bid ramped up. Tall, suave, and debonair, Steele poses a potentially serious challenge to their party's hold on black voters, a crucial element of Democratic support whose defection would make it nearly impossible to win statewide elections.

Steele often shares his inspiring up-by-the-bootstraps personal story. Born at Andrews Air Force Base in Prince George's County, he was raised in a working-class family in Washington, D.C. His mother was a laundress who refused to go on welfare because she did not want the government raising her children.

Steele has said Ronald Reagan's 1976 insurgent candidacy for the GOP's presidential nomination led him to become a Republican. He spent three years in a Jesuit seminary after graduating from Johns Hopkins, then switched to a legal career. With his emphasis on entrepreneurship and his solidly conservative views on social issues, he quickly caught the notice of Republican higher-ups. In 1995 the state GOP selected him as Maryland State Republican Man of the Year. He worked on several political campaigns and served as an alternate delegate to the 1996 Republican National Convention in San Diego and as a delegate to the 2000 Republican National Convention in Philadelphia.

In December 2000 Steele was elected chairman of the Maryland Republican Party, becoming the first African American ever to lead a state GOP. Republican gubernatorial nominee Robert Ehrlich selected Steele as his running mate in 2002. They won, becoming the first Republican ticket in 36 years to occupy the state's top elected jobs.

But the campaign was often bruising. During that race Steele faced repeated questions about his financial past. He admitted that sometime during his career he had faced financial difficulties. But he was vague, and his biographies do not account for all the years between his college graduation, his time in seminary, his marriage, his law school graduation, the founding of his own business, and his time in office.

Questions about Steele's financial history became increasingly acute in fall 2002, when the Maryland Republican Party began paying him $5,000 a month in consulting fees shortly after his selection as Ehrlich's running mate. Democrats said the payments raised ethical questions, charging that the Republicans had essentially hired a candidate. State Republican Party officials defended the payments by saying Steele was being paid to continue performing his duties as party chairman because his replacement was not prepared to take over yet.

Similar questions were sure to emerge again during his Senate bid, which Steele made official in fall 2005, a few months after Democratic Sen. Paul Sarbanes announced he would retire. But Steele caught a lucky break through Democrats' clumsy attempts to dig up damaging information. In July 2005 Lauren B. Weiner, a researcher working for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), illegally obtained a copy of Steele's credit report. The Washington Post reported that "sources familiar with the episode said Steele's credit report was obtained with the use of his Social Security number, which was found on a public court document." Weiner used Steele's Social Security number to obtain his credit report from TransUnion and used DSCC Research Director Katie Barge's DSCC credit card to pay for the report. Weiner pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of computer fraud and agreed to complete 150 hours of community service. Barge resigned.

Steele then went on the offensive, saying public figures deserve some privacy. He publicly warned fellow Republican Senate candidates around the country to beware of credit hackers and threatened a civil suit against the former Democratic operatives. The Democrats' ham-handedness has largely diffused outstanding questions about Steele's finances.

That's unfortunate. Obtaining a credit report under fraudulent auspices is wrong. But voters deserve to have the fullest possible accounting of candidates' financial backgrounds, which can shed light on their financial judgment. Steele was able to play the victim while deflecting important questions related to how he might spend taxpayer dollars.

All of this is not to say that Steele's past business woes and problems paying bills render him unqualified to serve in the Senate. Such a standard would sideline many intelligent, hard-working, well-intentioned people who have weathered money problems. But voters have the right to decide such information's relevance for themselves.

A West Virginia Minefield

At the outset of the current election cycle, the race for West Virginia's 1st Congressional District didn't seem likely to yield much negative campaigning. In fact, it wasn't thought to be much of a campaign at all. The Democratic incumbent, Alan Mollohan, had a name that was political gold. His father, Robert Mollohan, had represented the district in the House from 1953 to 1957 and again from 1969 to 1983, and he had practically bequeathed the safe Democratic seat to his son upon retirement. Since then, Alan Mollohan had repeatedly won by wide margins. Moreover, as a longtime member of the House Appropriations Committee, he had proved himself a master at bringing home the bacon for the economically struggling northeastern regions of the Mountain State.

Though he operated behind the scenes for much of his congressional career, Mollohan in 2005 took on a more prominent role as the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, popularly known as the Ethics Committee. There he criticized Republican efforts to allow then–House Majority Leader Tom DeLay to stay in his leadership post after being indicted by a Texas grand jury on state campaign finance violation charges. He blocked the Ethics Committee from organizing and beginning its work until the rule change was reversed.

Amid the Jack Abramoff and Duke Cunningham scandals, as Democrats assailed House Republicans for a "culture of corruption," GOP allies sought to neutralize the issue and target a prominent Democrat. Mollohan soon found himself in Republican crosshairs, thanks to allegations that through his Appropriations Committee position he gave millions of dollars in earmarks to groups staffed by his friends and business partners, while his personal wealth soared.

The conservative National Legal and Policy Center filed a 500-page ethics complaint with the U.S. Justice Department in February, accusing Mollohan of misrepresenting his assets on financial disclosure forms. The document noted, among other things, that Mollohan's real estate holdings and other assets jumped in value from $562,000 in 2000 to at least $6.3 million in 2004. The complaint also suggested that the congressman grossly undervalued assets, giving purported valuations which were a small fraction of the assets' true value.

Media outlets began digging into Mollohan's finances. In April The Wall Street Journal reported that Mollohan and Dale R. McBridge, CEO of FMW Composite Systems, jointly purchased a 300-acre farm along West Virginia's Cheat River. Mollohan had directed a $2.1 million government contract to McBridge's company to develop lightweight payload pallets for space shuttle missions.

More revelations about Mollohan's finances soon emerged, including news that the Federal Bureau of Investigation was looking into his dealings. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi pressured him to step aside from his Ethics Committee post. Republicans saw an opportunity to mount a competitive challenge for Mollohan's seat. State Del. Chris Wakim of Wheeling, previously an underdog with little backing from the national party, became a prominent GOP candidate.

Amid the well-documented allegations of using his public office for private gain, Mollohan refused to concede that any legitimate issues were being raised. Instead he tried to blame the whole episode on negative campaigning by Republican strategists. "It's payback time by Karl Rove," Mollohan told The State Journal. "They know my strength is in appropriations, my credibility is in appropriations. So that is where they are attacking my credibility. [They are] attacking everything that we've done in the region that's good and recasting it as bad."

What Mollohan failed to do was rebut the charges—other than denying generally any wrongdoing—or to concede that potential political corruption is a fair campaign issue. Even putative Democratic allies declared the business deals fair game in campaigning; the none-too-conservative editorial pages of The New York Times and The Washington Post called upon Mollohan to step down from his Ethics Committee post.

West Virginia voters will get their say on Mollohan's political fate come November. Although there has been little polling in the district, Republicans have pledged to pour resources into a race they ordinarily would have written off.

Absenteeism and Hypocrisy in Pennsylvania

Like Mollohan and Michael Steele, Republican Sen. Rick Santorum has tried to turn his opponent's negative campaigning against him. He has not had much success. Santorum has faced persistent questions about whether he and his family reside in Pennsylvania, as he claims. Actually, it would be more accurate to say he has persistently ducked those questions, declaring that such matters are not worth discussing.

Santorum did not always feel that way. When he first ran for the House of Representatives in 1990, he claimed that the longtime Democratic incumbent, Doug Walgren, did not live in the Pittsburgh district he represented. Instead, Santorum charged, the congressman kept his wife and kids with him in their home in D.C.'s Virginia suburbs. Walgren responded that he used his lifelong Pittsburgh residence for voting and taxes but that a member of Congress should keep his young family close to where he works. In a Pittsburgh debate Santorum, then a 32-year-old lawyer making his first bid for public office, said, "We're going to raise our family here."

Santorum won that race in an upset and was elected to the Senate four years later, again beating an incumbent Democrat. In the upper chamber Santorum quickly earned a reputation as a partisan brawler, stressing his opposition to same-sex marriage and abortion and championing other socially conservative issues of the day. "He's got an in-your-face style, argumentative and pugnacious, which does offend some people," notes G. Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. "He's divisive. He's not a consensus builder."

Now, after a dozen years of Santorum's take-no-prisoners political combat, Democrats are in full battle mode against him. Santorum faces Democratic nominee Bob Casey Jr., son of a popular former governor, whose pro-life, anti–gun control, and economically populist positions dovetail with the views of most Pennsylvania voters. (See "Penn Statists," page 14.) But public policy has been only one element in the campaign. The question of Santorum's residency is also a prominent issue. Critics contend that the senator, who did not hesitate to slam Walgren for pretending to live in Pennsylvania, does not reside at the suburban Pittsburgh address he claims.

It's valid to question whether a senator lives in the state he represents, especially if the senator in question has a history of arguing that the issue is important. Yet Santorum has tried to dismiss the matter as negative campaigning and has pointed his finger back at his accusers, turning the issue of residency into one of snooping on private property.

The controversy has been bubbling for two years, since Democrats began charging that Santorum actually lives in Leesburg, Virginia, with his wife and six children. Neighbors say they rarely see the senator or his wife and kids at their Penn Hills, Pennsylvania, house. Based on such reports, some Penn Hills residents objected to the local school district's paying for the senator's children to be enrolled in a cyber charter school.

Critics gathered more ammunition against Santorum in March, when the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette sent letters to the candidates seeking materials for its voter guide. A letter addressed to Santorum at his listed Penn Hills address came back with a note from the U.S. Postal Service saying "Not Deliverable as Addressed—Unable to Forward." The most recent contretemps over the residency issue began on May 16, the day of the primary elections, when Ed Vecchio, the husband of the Penn Hills Democratic Party chairwoman, said of Santorum: "He doesn't live here. The house that he's registered to vote out of is vacant—no curtains, furniture, nothing in there. It's abandoned for over a month."

Rather than confronting the merits of the charge, Santorum claimed that such information could be gleaned only by trespassing on his property. He fingered Vecchio as an operative of the Casey campaign, although there was no evidence of any coordination. He ran radio ads denouncing the alleged trespassing episode, or "windowgate," as local wags refer to it. Santorum's wife, Karen, then called Capitol Police, who protect members of Congress; the Capitol Police, in turn, contacted police in Penn Hills, who checked out the home and declared it safe. Democrats called the trespassing charge a diversionary tactic aimed at deflecting attention from the issue of the senator's residency.

As with Steele's Senate campaign, the questions about Santorum do not disqualify him from office. Voters can decide for themselves if their senator's main home should be in the state he represents. The issue is not clear-cut: Pennsylvania law anticipates that members of Congress will live out of state most of the year. Santorum and his wife both hold Pennsylvania driver's licenses and are licensed to practice law in the Keystone State. "The question Santorum faces is political, not legal," says Madonna, the Franklin & Marshall political scientist. "What does it mean to live there? It's not been defined."

That's a question Pennsylvania voters will help answer in November. It's better that they have the fullest possible information when reaching a conclusion.

Under Fire

In the Pennsylvania and Maryland Senate races and West Virginia's 1st Congressional District campaign, the closing days of the election cycle will undoubtedly be filled with waves of hard-edged television attack ads, vicious blog posts, and direct-mail mudslinging. These aggressive tactics not only will bring to the fore important issues but may also shed light on the character of political aspirants. The way candidates respond to negative campaign tactics can be an indicator of how they would perform in public office. If they wilt under attacks or fail to respond to charges, it may be a sign they would not perform particularly well in the rough and tumble of elected office.

That, too, will be for the electorate to decide. The history of political campaigns shows that when candidates present clear, stark differences between themselves and opponents, citizens are better able to judge whom to support. When those lines are drawn sharply in harsh, tough ads and attacks in the press, it's the voters who win.

Related: The 10 Dirtiest Political Races in U.S. History: Ads, slogans, and campaign themes that stand out for sheer venom