It's that time in our democratic cycle when you rise to your radio alarm daily with accusations about a candidate's voting history or personal indiscretions.
As you eat breakfast, a television advertisement offers an unflattering picture of a politician coupled with their stance on a hot-button issue. Upon returning home after a day of being peppered with partisan rhetoric, you check the mail and receive a fistful of flyers that deride a candidate for cozying up to unions or voting to increase their own pay.
'Tis the season for negative political campaign ads, where sensationalism is king and virtually no laws regulate behavior. For consumers, the Food and Drug Administration provides regulations for companies that advertise its hot dogs as "allnatural." For voters, no such protections exist.
While the Fair Political Practices Commission of California monitors who pays for political ads and the League of Women Voters will urge candidates to sign promises that they will play fair during the race, each candidate is essentially left to his or her own moral compass when it comes to smearing an opponent.
But there is a reason negative political campaigns have been a part of the American political arena for more than 150 years: They work.
People seem to enjoy them
"It responds to our basic human nature," said David Johnson, CEO of Georgia-based Strategic Vision, LLC. and a senior Republican strategist who worked on Bob Dole's 1988 presidential campaign. "People respond to a negative story, no matter if it is political, financial or even sports."
Partisan divide is a reason attack ads are seen and read more now than ever before, he said. The country is angry at politicians, and the country's financial woes and negative ads tap into that anger.
The use of negative advertisements is more important for incumbents because the public has its mind already made up on them, he said. He described how he viewed Sen. Barbara Boxer's negative ads against opponent Carly Fiorina.
"The only way she can win is to make her opponent more unlikeable than her," he said.
Boxer has run television ads saying Fiorina shipped jobs out of the country when she was CEO of Hewlett-Packard.
Smear campaigns also work, because they appeal to a person's basic distrust of the government and dislike of politicians, management consultant Ed Crego said.
"Most of us vote against people rather than for someone," he said.
While experts agree that negative campaigns work, there is disagreement about which medium negative campaigns are best suited for: television, radio or direct mail.
Direct mailers are the best route, Johnson said, because even if a person ultimately throws the mailer away, it is assured a person will look at it.
Others disagree. Because television is more interactive and reaches a wider audience, 30-second spot ads are the best way for a candidate to trash a competitor, said author and founder of Red Zone Marketing, LLC. Maribeth Kuzmeski.
A popular example of a negative political ad ran during the 1988 presidential election. Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis was painted as soft on crime because he was a supporter of a weekend furlough plan for incarcerated felons. While one felon was on a weekend release, he committed assault, rape and armed robbery. While it was rooted in fact, the ad was sensationalized, Kuzmeski said.
The same information wouldn't have carried the same weight if delivered over the radio or through the mail.
Do they always work?
Negative campaigns can and do backfire. Recently, Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Fla., caught severe backlash for dubbing his Republican opponent Daniel Webster "Taliban Dan." Webster was shown saying that women should submit to him because it's in the Bible, and drew parallels to the notoriously misogynistic terrorist organization. The quote was later found to be heavily edited and taken out of context.
The incumbent appears to be on the verge of losing his seat, partially due to public sentiment regarding the ad. The Democratic candidate was also ridiculed for the ad on a recent episode of the left-leaning "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart."
The battle of the sexes is also something to be aware of, Johnson said. Male candidates must be careful when slamming a female because they run the risk of being painted as sexist, he said.
"Policy stuff is fair game, but be careful attacking a personal issue," he said. "The male can look like an abusive husband."
But women can take more liberties attacking their male counterparts, he said.
"Even if a female candidate had an affair it can be painted to make it look like the male caused her to do it," he said.
Timing is also important. In a hotly contested primary with multiple candidates, the candidate who first "goes negative" can be punished by voters while the opponents who appeared to stay out of the fight benefit from looking like they are taking the high ground, said Matthew Kerbel, professor of political science at Villanova University.
At what cost?
How much it costs to fund each specific ad campaign depends on the position and medium, said Tim Clark, campaign strategist for Jack Sieglock. It costs more than $30,000 to produce and send mailers to 100,000 residents for that race, he said. Sieglock is running for California's 10th Assembly district seat against Democratic incumbent Alsyon Huber, D-El Dorado Hills.
Huber's spokesperson, Jennifer Wonnacott, said they don't perceive the ads and mailers they are running against Sieglock to be negative.
"We are letting the public know about Jack's record," she said. "Jack's going around trying to act like he's not been in office."
Clark countered, and said Democrats across the country are going negative because they are losing on the issues that matter to voters and need to distract them from high jobless rates and rampant spending.
"Democrats have to change the channel," he said.
Are there any unspoken rules?
While the lines can be blurred, candidates generally have an unspoken agreement not to attack the other's spouse or children. But the indiscretions of the family can and will be brought into the fold if there is political ground to be gained, Crego said.
As long as a candidate does not slander his or her opponent, it appears all is fair in political campaigns.
Since no laws regulate candidates' behavior, they are free to package inflammatory material with a kernel of truth to advance their agenda.
"At a minimum, you should ask candidates to sign a code of conduct," Crego said. "It's not enforceable, but it shows you have signed this and you didn't honor your word."
Another political expert said campaign finance reform is to blame.
"The fallacy with campaign finance reform is the thought that the money won't be spent," Clark said.
"It will always find its way in. It only puts up roadblocks because it can't be spent by candidates and is spent by larger groups that are harder to track down."
Campaign finance reform is part of the reason for more negative advertisements, said Clark.
Funds can be donated to political action committees, which can run negative ads without a candidate's approval. Rules also prevent the committee and the candidate from communicating with each other.
"Most of the time it's not coming from each other directly," he said.
Contact reporter Jordan Guinn at firstname.lastname@example.org.