Attack ads, then and now
BY JANET PEARSON Associate Editor
Sunday, August 26, 2012
8/26/12 at 3:07 AM
So you think this is one of the most negative presidential campaign cycles in American history? It may seem that way, but President Obama and Mitt Romney aren't exactly plowing new ground.
Consider a few strategies of centuries ago, detailed in a recent U.S. News and World Report article by Lara M. Brown, assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at Villanova University:
"In 1876, a Democratic whisper campaign suggested that Republican Rutherford B. Hayes had shot and wounded his own mother in a drunken 'fit of insanity.' " Republicans responded by calling the Democrat, Grover Cleveland, a "lecherous beast" and a "moral leper," charges arising out of his siring an illegitimate child and then placing the child's mother in a mental institution.
Then there were the rumors that Adlai Stevenson was a homosexual who supposedly killed a girl "in a jealous rage," and that Lyndon Johnson "had friends and associates of John F. Kennedy killed."
CBS News Anchor Bob Schieffer provided more tidbits in a recent column: Thomas Jefferson reportedly accused President John Adams of being a hermaphrodite with "neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman."
"In response, the Adams campaign accused Jefferson of being the son of a half-breed Indian squaw and a mulatto father."
One of the most famous negative campaigns in American history was the 1828 race, featuring John Quincy Adams' backers calling Andrew Jackson "a murderer, his mother a prostitute and his wife an adulteress."
In retrospect, the 2012 campaign doesn't seem so nasty after all.
Even local races aren't immune to negativity. The last mayoral contest, in 2009, was surely one of the city's nastiest. Democratic candidate Tom Adelson accused Republican Dewey Bartlett of resorting to a "Washington bag of tricks. ... talking about Obama and Pelosi, so we won't discuss his raising our tolls. Bartlett voting against senior nutrition programs, wanting to turn our expressways into toll roads, calling for raising our property taxes, pushing to invest our tax dollars in a private airline going bankrupt."
Not to be outdone, Bartlett suggested Adelson, a former state senator, had a "troubling" record on crime.
"Adelson voted against the death penalty for twice-convicted child molesters, the worst of criminals. He wouldn't even let the jury give child molesters life without parole. ... With a soft-on-crime liberal record like this, we can't trust Tom Adelson to keep Tulsa families safe."
Let's face it: Negative ads probably always will be a staple of American campaigns. As Lara Brown noted, quoting another political historian, "Probably the only clean election in American history was the first one, in 1789, in which George Washington ran unopposed."
What's a voter to do? The ads aren't going to go away, so it looks like we're on our own when it comes to evaluating them and making informed decisions.
Why so negative?
Candidates turn to negative messages for specific reasons: to pull ahead in a close race, to defend one's record, to try to come from behind.
Negative ads can be effective, the experts suggest, when they appear to be accurate portrayals of a candidate's weaknesses. And think about it: Who else but the opponent is going to flag a candidate's defects? So when advertising reveals a candidate's legitimate weaknesses, it can be useful to voters.
But an awful lot of ads tell only part of the story, which can - and should - leave voters wondering about their credibility. In the Bartlett-Adelson race, the negative ads of both sides had some facts behind them, but they didn't tell the whole story. Adelson voted against the bill in question because he knew it was unconstitutional to sentence a child molester to death, and also because he knew current law already allowed life-without-parole sentences for repeat child molesters. And Bartlett also had reasonable explanations for his actions involving toll increases and the other issues Adelson raised.
Ads that are misleading because they misrepresent facts or leave out salient facts can alienate voters, especially if the race becomes a name-calling, finger-pointing slug-fest. Research shows some voters will conclude all the candidates are lying scoundrels and will just stay home on election day.
In fact, according to one study, about six million voters sat out the contentious 1992 presidential race in which challenger Bill Clinton defeated incumbent President Bush because of the negativity. An analysis done by the University of Oklahoma's Political Communications Center found that about 65 percent of the ads in that contest were negative, compared with only 55 percent in the 1988 presidential campaign.
And remember, a negative ad is negative only to those who have a different view. What's a lie or distortion to one camp is the absolute truth in another. So it doesn't seem fair to ask a candidate to refrain from bringing up his opponent's perceived weaknesses. And if a candidate does have some baggage that affects his or her fitness for office, voters certainly have a right to know that.
So what can we realistically ask of candidates? In a perfect world, their ads would be entirely credible, backed up by records and sources that are accessible to the average voter. Victims of attacks would be able to also provide proof of their defense.
But all that's probably too much to ask. In the end, voters will have to figure out how to better evaluate campaign rhetoric. Following media reports closely can help voters separate fact from fiction. Instincts also come in handy; sometimes if an ad just doesn't seem totally believable, there's a good chance it isn't.
Tuning out and staying home should not be options for patriotic Americans.
One political advertising expert once told me this, and I think it's as true as ever: "If we're not prepared to listen and evaluate, then we're giving up our right to take part in the political process."
Janet Pearson 918-581-8328