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Campaign ads can get downright ugly. Why do candidates embrace mud-slingling so easily?

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Posted: Saturday, October 23, 2010 12:00 am | Updated: 5:57 am, Mon Oct 25, 2010.

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 jordang@lodinews.com.

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  • daniel hutchins posted at 10:21 am on Sun, Oct 24, 2010.

    daniel hutchins Posts: 1335

    Through education, learn and realized

    1) that there is a corporation, and US citizenship of the 14th amendment variety, is membership in it.

    2) that it is now possible to join the same de jure government that we once learned about in our high school government classes.

  • daniel hutchins posted at 10:19 am on Sun, Oct 24, 2010.

    daniel hutchins Posts: 1335

    Jerome: Respectfully, this brings me to two points for which you have always argued:

    1) If you are registered to vote, you are a corporate member of the corporation, and you give consent to all of its corruption, and you agree to accept the consequences. You give consent to bombing innocent foreign nations, false propaganda on foreign nations, biological experiments, etc.

    [The California National Guard is sworn to uphold and defend California, not fight in foreign wars. There is no emergency that makes it necessary to send them overseas.]

    2) cont.

  • daniel hutchins posted at 10:11 am on Sun, Oct 24, 2010.

    daniel hutchins Posts: 1335

    Jerome: Thank you for responding. I’m sorry I didn’t see your response until now.

    You wrote, “voters to reject ads that are obviously dishonest.”

    Jerome: Your suggestion would require a critical mass beyond a majority to all agree not to vote for dishonest politicians.

    Moreover, if the voters realized that both the democrat and republican candidates, at least a the federal level, were incredibly corrupt, they couldn’t organize to agree upon the same 3rd party candidate, and either the democrat or republican candidate would win the election anyway, because the votes from dissenting voters would be counted amongst a spectrum of other candidates.

  • Doug Chaney posted at 9:17 am on Sun, Oct 24, 2010.

    Doug Chaney Posts: 1232

    Now this is what I would consider a very good blog and a debate between these 4 intellectual persons withoout any belittlement or vindictiveness. Thanks for making my Sunday morning coffee enjoyable by showing your real civility and intellegence. All good points were made and all contributed interesting and valuable points of view concerning these "whose the worse scumbag" commercials and incessant mailers. I figure 2 important will come of these types of campaigning: paper recyclers will be working overtime and TV stations will become humongously rich. LOL

  • Darrell Baumbach posted at 4:46 am on Sun, Oct 24, 2010.

    Darrell Baumbach Posts: 9403

    • Jerome states… Once again, as long as negative advertising gets them over the finish line, they'll do it. My question still stands - does anyone believe they should be prohibited from doing it?

    The way this question is framed, it can never be prohibited. Otherwise, powerful people who do not like truthful things about themselves, that is negative in a commercial, would attempt to prohibit that speech. That slippery slope could result in another North Korea.

    To me, it is not a question of weather negative advertising works or not. I have seen both positive and negative campaign ads that were obviously misleading or down right falsehoods. It is a question of what is right and wrong and defining what that is. Should ends justify the means? Should a person, who intentionally produces any campaign ad, knowing that it is blatantly false, be able to broadcast that ad? Should lies be protected in the guise of free speech? I think the answer should be yes, but conditional.

    If you look at what pharmaceutical industry has to do legally in their drug commercials maybe that should be model, or the conditional requirements of politicians. They can make claims in their ad of their product in that commercial, but before the commercial is over, they have to state all the negative side effects that drug is known to cause. The commercial cannot simply state opinion of the drug from their perspective; it must express the truth of possible harm to the consumer.
    So the politician making claims both positive and negative in their ad, maybe, should have requirements of some type of disclosure of where the consumer can verify that claim or the actual verification itself. If pharmaceuticals can be forced to pay for the air time to disclose possible side effects, maybe the politicians who write the laws should have the same requirements put upon themselves.

  • Jerome Kinderman posted at 8:47 pm on Sat, Oct 23, 2010.

    Jerome R Kinderman Posts: 2255

    There are many things that we "can" do; but most people just don't go out and do them unless it serves a purpose, positive or otherwise. What this still boils down to - understanding that negative advertising is guaranteed to a great extent because of the First Amendment - why would they continue to partake in this largely distasteful practice if it weren't effective; if it didn't serve their needs to win an election?

    Once again, as long as negative advertising gets them over the finish line, they'll do it. My question still stands - does anyone believe they should be prohibited from doing it?

    True supporters of the Constitution would agree that one's freedom of expression outweighs most negative impacts it might cause to others. Still, there are few who believe such speech should be curtailed because of the unhappiness it might create. That is until their own goals are threatened by such prohibitive measures - then watch how quickly their tunes will change.

    As I’ve already revealed my belief that such advertising is effective, of course I’d be interested in hearing from anyone who believes that such negative politicking does not work. My interest would naturally be limited to what would they think should be done about it.

  • Manuel Martinez posted at 6:31 pm on Sat, Oct 23, 2010.

    Manuel Martinez Posts: 641

    To add my interpretation to Daniel's statement, it isn't that they need be barred from doing so(there is debate about that), it simply is the realization of the situation. Candidates embrace that which is at their disposal. Simple.

  • Jerome Kinderman posted at 6:10 pm on Sat, Oct 23, 2010.

    Jerome R Kinderman Posts: 2255

    Mr. Hutchins, you aren't obliquely suggesting that politicians should be prohibited from engaging in such advertising practices, are you?

    The only solution that I can come to would be for the voters to reject ads that are obviously dishonest; and then reject those politicians who are using them to such an unfair advantage. If they're true, then there's not much that can be done; nor should there be.

  • daniel hutchins posted at 5:45 pm on Sat, Oct 23, 2010.

    daniel hutchins Posts: 1335

    Why do candidates embrace mud-slingling so easily?

    They can.

  • Jerome Kinderman posted at 12:14 pm on Sat, Oct 23, 2010.

    Jerome R Kinderman Posts: 2255

    The title to this article must be a rhetorical question, right? The only reason "[w]hy ... candidates embrace mud-slinging so easily" is because those ads ARE effective.

    For all of the banter and complaining about these horrible tactics, the bottom line is when down to single-digit separation in the opinion polls, candidates will do absolutely anything it takes to get ahead. Why else would anyone spend $150 million to be governor? Politics is a full-contact sport - and it does get gory. Most people realize just by the number of football games that are watched each week that Americans love a messy fight - the gorier, the better. It’s no different on the political field of battle.

    The only reason they complain about the ads is because the better side of their consciences need the salve that only believing they’re non-violent will assuage. The politicians are only giving Americans what they want – and they’re only too happy to oblige.



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