Election 2016

Nasty Politics

You learn more from negative ads than fluffy positive ones.


This presidential election is like no other.

Most election years around this time, I do a TV show on nasty political commercials. Pundits explain which ads worked, which didn't, and who won because he raised more money and spent more on negative ads.

Among Republicans this year, says Ad Age, Jeb Bush's supporters spent the most, $80 million, followed by Marco Rubio at $70 million. It didn't seem to help.

Democrats spent even more. Clinton's backers spent $153 million and Sanders' $76 million.

Donald Trump, of course, bore the brunt of much of that negative advertising. Clinton, Sanders, Ted Cruz, John Kasich, Bush, the Club for Growth, Our Principles, New Day for America, Correct the Record and Keep the Promise super PACs ran commercials that I thought would devastate the Trump campaign.

Some replayed his crude comments: "Does she have a good body? No! Does she have a fat ass? Absolutely."

Some replayed flip-flops. After Trump complained about China "stealing our jobs," David Letterman asked Trump where his ties came from. "China," admitted Trump.

"Where are your shirts made?" asked Letterman.

"We employ people in Bangladesh," said Trump. And in a debate, he said, "We're doing many, many deals outside of the United States."

Political commercials showed that Trump once pushed for forms of Obamacare that most Republicans hate. In one ad, a reporter asked Trump about health care:

Reporter: Universal health care?

Trump: I am going to take care of everybody.

Reporter: Who pays for it?

Trump: The government is going to pay for it.

Other ads played a sound bite of Trump saying, "I probably identify more as a Democrat."

Trump's opponents spent millions to reveal Trump in his own words, caught contradicting himself on TV. Pundits called the ads "devastating." Most Republican primary voters didn't care.

Soon, the ads may get still nastier.

Every election season pundits complain about "negative campaigning." When President Obama last ran, he said, "It can seem like a return to civility is not possible." Four years before, reporters claimed "candidates have taken dirty to a whole new level."

People say they long for a return to politeness in politics—but politics was never polite.

Thomas Jefferson's supporters printed handbills that said: "John Adams is a blind, bald, crippled, toothless man who secretly wants to start a war with France. When he is not busy importing mistresses from Europe, he's trying to marry one of his sons to a daughter of King George III."

Adams supporters came back with: "If Thomas Jefferson wins, murder, robbery, rape, adultery and incest will be openly taught and practiced. Are you prepared to see your dwellings in flames? Female chastity violated? Children writhing on the pike?"

Had TV existed then, those would have been powerful commercials.

One hundred sixty-eight years later, when Barry Goldwater ran against Lyndon Johnson, Johnson supporters claimed Goldwater was a John Birch Society member and a schizophrenic. A magazine called Fact got a thousand psychiatrists to sign a statement that said Goldwater was insane. None of it was true, and Goldwater later won a defamation suit against Fact. But by then, the election was over.

Despite such deceit, we're probably better off with negative ads.

Every year some candidates say, "I will run a positive campaign."

Part of my brain says, "That would be nice; maybe we'll learn more about their plans." But research shows that's rarely true. Fluffy "positive" ads don't tell us much.

This year Bernie Sanders ran ads showing him hugging people while cheering crowds surrounded him and singers sang "All come to look for America."

What does that even mean?

The beauty of negative ads is that the accusations at least purport to be facts. Vanderbilt University political scientist John Geer found that three-quarters of negative political ads from 1960 to 2004 attacked real statements of policy from the opposing candidate. Such policy statements can be checked.

Even if those statements turn out to be based on lies, those lies force the other side to reply with facts. Voters actually learn something. And usually, eventually, the truth comes out.

So two cheers for negative ads—something good comes from nasty. I'll play some of the worst ads on my show this week. The messages are mean, but truth often is.


NEXT: Marco Rubio vs. Rand Paul on Foreign Policy - and Fantasy vs. Reality

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  1. Why do we care about positive/negative adds at this stage? We already know that every single remaining candidate is a statist douchebag with a talent for lying and wasting other peoples’ money. How “nice” they play woth each other is, at this point, of zero concern to me, at least.

    I say we just settle this shit via Celebrity Deathmatch and call it a day.

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    1. I couldn’t have said it better myself.

      1. Much more goodly, it is possible not to say!

  3. Exactly John. When someone decries the ‘lack of civil discourse’ I remind them of Adams/Jefferson and the other awful rhetoric of campaign’s past.

    1. John Stossel’s name is all over fake websites labeled “2016 election betting odds”. The real sites that actually fade bets are all offering to take your $300 bet on the Dems and put you ahead $100 if you win. Turning that around, it’s three to one odds the GOP loses again. These are the same bookies that laid odds the Dems would win in 2012, and paid the bets before the polls even closed.
      Maybe the GOP should go back to George Bush Senior’s death sentence for hemp kingpins. That would at least prevent Governor Gary from siphoning off a lot of law-changing spoiler votes.

  4. Oh, John, you’re just bringing this up so you can replay people saying nasty things about both the R’s and the D’s, essentially a free re-broadcast of the anti-Trump ads and the anti-Hillary ads. You’re not fooling anyone, you know. We all know you’re one of those Libertarians who support higher taxes, bigger government, more regulations, outlawing everything you find icky – from abortion to gay marriage to drugs to consensual commercial sex – and if elected your kind would repeal the entire Bill of Rights. True, you would institute such economy-stimulating measures as a high minimum wage, high corporate taxes, strict licensing regimes for all the occupations, expanded DoL and EPA and FDA regulation and much more funding for the NSA, the TSA, the CIA, and the Pentagon – but that doesn’t excuse the fact that all Libertarians are orphan-beating, monocle-polishing, mustache-twirling, one-percenter Koch operatives well known for their virulent racist, misogynistic anti-Semitism.

    There, I’ve laid out the facts – let’s see you try and refute that! I’d just love to see you do something like a 2-hour 20/20 special investigation trying to dispute the facts I’ve just laid bare about how awful Libertarians are. C’mon, I dare you!

    1. Cool. Applying the Gish-gallop in commentariat format. Nice!

      1. Who gets persuaded by that technique (either the original or the text)? Rapid-fire anything sets off my bullshit alarms.

        1. Even James Woods as Hades?

    2. It might actually be fun to do some attack ads against the LP – “The Libertarians believe the American people should have the freedom to do X. We know this is a bad idea because the American people are far too ignorant and immoral to be trusted with such a dangerous freedom. Granted their liberty, the American people will abuse this freedom to do what they think is right rather than what their betters in government tell them is right. Don’t let the American people ruin this great nation by choosing freedom, vote for and support the Establishment candidate of your choice this election season. The Establishment: the candidates you’ve trusted for generations to bring you the government you want, the government you need, the government you deserve.”

      1. You make a lousy spin doctor.

        An attack ad against the LP (if one were ever needed) would play up the misconception that only government can do some things or prevent others. it would be brutally effective at scaremongering.

        1. As we all know, there must be rules, and rules must come from government. Where else are they going to come from? By wanting less government, libertarians want fewer rules. Just like teenagers, libertarians are too naive to understand that those rules are there for good reason. They don’t want to follow the rules, just like teenagers. They’re immature little brats who just want to do what they want, and ignore those who know better. Do you want a government run by teenagers? If so, then vote for libertarians. If you want a government run by adults, then vote for a member of a mature party.

      2. You know, that might actually make for a good advertisement by the LP.

        1. Well, it couldn’t hurt. They need to do something different.

      3. Seat belt laws, speed limits, statutory rape and age of consent, gay marriage, transwomen using the bathroom, gun control.

        You can argue pro/con of any given law, but the notion that we need laws that restrict freedom because people will abuse that freedom (whether through negligence, ignorance, or malice) is not as foreign of controversial as you think.

      4. That’s an idea. The Ed clark campaign had the goofiest ads. Like McAfees they said nothing, but still netted a bumper crop of votes (over 5% as counted by the looters).

    3. I LIKE IT!

  5. Of all of the things to dislike about Trump, “negative tone” doesn’t seem to be one of them. In fact, I’m learning something from him. I’m not sure what it is, or how to apply it in my life, but it certainly is a revelation.

    Answering “isn’t this you on this recording pretending to be your publicist?” with “I don’t know what you are talking about.” doesn’t seem to be brilliant to me…. and yet somehow it seems to work for him.

    Or maybe it is just that we generally grade folks on a curve. When the down’s syndrome kid kicks the ball, we all applaud loudly even though he kicked it in the wrong direction and then just stood their grinning. Maybe that explains the public reaction to Trump too.

      1. This, even though I typed “their”. Holy crap, the brain is a weird organ.

    1. I think it works for him because his intended audience hates the person asking the question and sees them as an oppressor, so it comes across as spirited defiance rather than careless jerkassitude.

      1. yeh, this. Trump has realized (or just happened into it) that the media and commentariat has lost all credibility over the last 12 years. They have completely betrayed the trust of over half the country, such that virtually anything they say falls on deaf ears. Paraphrasing Trump….if the NYT’s showed video of Trump shooting a person in Time’s Square….a majority would not believe it and suspect the NYT had staged the whole thing.

        This is what comes from years of selective reporting and outright fabrications.

  6. The reaction by a candidate and that candidate’s followers to a negative ad can be pretty informative, too. I remember a US Senate race in Maryland in which an organization ran ads criticizing the Democratic incumbent’s school policy. No one bothered to show that the ads contained factual inaccuracies or even half-truths; instead, the response effectively consisted of “You’ve hurt our feelings, you big meanies!” The media, which functioned as a wholly owned subsidiary of the local Democratic establishment, even changed the definition of “smear campaign” to fit.

  7. I promise to run a positive campaign.

    I’m positive my opponent likes to throw little babies into incinerators.

    I’m positive that my opponent wants to usher in a depression so that he can force every single citizen to bow to his will.

    I’m positive my opponent wants criminals and terrorist to invade your homes and rape and murder your little puppies.

    1. I promise to run a positive campaign.

      And I’ll fact check.

      I’m positive my opponent likes to throw little babies into incinerators.

      Half true. One wants abortion victims incinerated. The other supports them being sold for parts.

      I’m positive that my opponent wants to usher in a depression so that he can force every single citizen to bow to his will.

      Mostly false – assumes we are not already in a depressed economic state.

      I’m positive my opponent wants criminals and terrorist to invade your homes and rape and murder your little puppies.

      True – opponant has supported increased police funding.

      1. Why do you want to go into a depression, Uncivil? Do you really just want to see people suffer?

      2. Why do you want to go into a depression, Uncivil? Do you really just want to see people suffer?

        1. I live on scahdenfreude and caffiene.

          Your suffering sustains me.

  8. This year Bernie Sanders ran ads showing him hugging people while cheering crowds surrounded him and singers sang “All come to look for America.”

    What does that even mean?

    Sheesh, John, did you expect them to sing “?nema”?

    1. It means he’s your guy if you were listening to Simon and Garfunkel and getting high in the 60’s.

      1. Hey, don’t other guys who listened to this while doing some black tar heroin. They’re likely to feel the Bern, too.

  9. Anytime the Republicans ran a “positive” campaign they lose. I remember the nasty campaigns where the world “liberal” was used as a nasty insult, and voting for the Democrat was the equivalent of killing the country off. And those nasty attacks seemed to work – at least back in the day. Now I’m not so sure given the changed electorate.

    1. You probably could – show Venezuelan food lines and such – “X wants this to come to America!!!!”

      1. Bernie actually admitted to it, so they could use his audio clip…

    2. It’s the prisoner’s delemma. If neither side runs a negative campaign, they both do okay. If one side runs a negative campaign, it tends to win. So both run a negative campaign and get dragged through the mud.

      1. Good observation.

    3. apparently my lack of sleep means my synonym generator becomes non-operational.

  10. Are the links gone forever?

  11. isidewith said I’m 89% in line with Petersen. Then 85% Cruz, then Shawna Sterling (84%), then Marc Allen Feldman (81%), then Gary Johnson (76%), then Donald Trump (64%), then Hillary Clinton (33%) and Bernie (30%).

    Johnson had majority agreement with Bernie.

    1. Most of my answers I chose to write my own response, so I’m not sure how the software handled that.

      The questions, I thought, were too general, or even misleading, so I saw the need to explain myself.

      1. I agree. The questions assumed an understanding of politics at the “Today Show” level. The immigration questions couldn’t capture the notion that I’m against allowing people to just come here illegally and get exploited because of their status, but we should massively increase legal immigration and allow both citizen path immigration and guest workers. That option was not on the table. It was “pro illegal immigrant” or “anti illegal immigrant”.

        In any event, I slogged through the thing only to learn that I agree with John McAfee. The first 4 on my list were Libertarians, matching at 90%+

        Now for the scary part. The biggest match of the real candidates? Hillary and Bernie. Ahead of Gary Johnson. Ok, now I know your poll is screwed up.

        So I drill down on Hillary… We agree on gay marriage – sort of – except she was never a supporter of gay marriage. We agree on pot – except she only says it should be legal for medical use. And she says that having worked in an administration that did nothing on this front. I’m beginning to suspect that this poll is full of BS. We agree on closing Guantanamo for different reasons, except she was actually in a position to do something about it and did nothing… holy crap. BS meter going crazy.

        Where are all of the income redistribution questions? Where are the budget responsibility questions? Where are the tax policy questions? Poll stinks. Except Trump is only 50% right. That sounds reasonable.

        1. Their algorithm is jacked up. Shawna Sterling is my best non-libertarian match at 87%.

          Except we only match on 3 questions that she answered. It counts all of the questions that I answered but she did not among the matches. She didn’t answer most of the questions.

          We differ on 16 questions. So we agree 15% of the time. Not 87%.

          So best play for a candidate: take the poll and decline to answer most of the questions.

          Now rechecking Hillary: She gets credit for 17 matches for questions not answered. Oh. Well that would explain things a little more clearly. Johnson answered just about everything.

          So definitely don’t answer anything except the two or three basic things nobody would disagree with.

    2. In other words, you want men with guns to force women to reproduce. All GOP infiltrators have the same one-question survey. That hasn’t changed in 45 years.

  12. Democrats spent even more. Clinton’s backers spent $153 million and Sanders’ $76 million.Democrats spent even more. Clinton’s backers spent $153 million and Sanders’ $76 million.

    And yet somehow, the anti “money in politics” crowd who want to overturn the first amendment never seem to complain about people spending that kind of money on Democratic campaigns. It’s almost like maybe they’re hypocritical cunts who really just don’t like people spending money on those EVUL RETHUGLIKKKANZ. Almost…

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