It’s that time of year again. Negative advertising – a hallmark of political campaigning – is about to begin. People say they hate it. The fact is, though, negative ads work. If they didn’t the politicians – the most pragmatic of folks – wouldn’t use them. You and I really do dislike them, but – thinking of some real tough stuff that was thrown at one of the Washington, DC mayoral candidates – I can see where I was susceptible to it. I began to wonder if the innuendo was true.
At least in this case it was very clear who was throwing the mud.
You have noticed now that all candidates for federal office include in their spots, “This is (NAME) and I approved this ad.” That requirement must have been included in one of the recently adopted campaign reform packages. So far as I know, I was the first to put it in legislation when I was running campaign finance reform bills in the late 80’s. But my bills never passed. I’m glad someone made it law.
My theory was that it is far more dangerous for a candidate to go harshly negative if they have to acknowledge responsibility for the attack. I would really like to see a study done on whether that idea has worked, even with the clever wordsmithing that surrounds some of the disclaimers. Maybe an academic will take that project on.
Even if it is effective on candidate-sponsored ads, others can throw mud: the political parties, for example. It has been reported that 90% of the money the GOP plans to spend leading up to November’s election will go for negative ads. If Republicans go dirty can the Democrats be far behind? The problem gets even worse. The growing popularity of third-party ads, the so-called “independent expenditures” and “issue advertising” allows attacks from other quarters – labor unions, business groups and ad hoc groups that mushroom up every two years and disappear about 8:05 pm on election night.
Still, in most cases you can tell who is benefiting from the mud. Also, we can look to see if that candidate denounces the garbage ads run for his or her benefit. If they just stand there with eyes cast heavenward, the picture of innocence, while third-party goons do the dirty work, we can spot it.
So, as long as we are influenced by negative political advertising, politicians will use it. Instead, this election put a stop to it. Put your vote right where it will do the most to restrain mud-throwing political candidates – put it in a little box on the ballot next to somebody else’s name.