Another Round Of Hand-Wringing Over “Negative Campaigns”

Once again, the punditocracy is bemoaning the rise of so-called "negative campaigning."

John Avlon asserts that the Florida Republican primary has been, judging just by the the television ads, the most negative ever:

No, it’s not your imagination. Things are uglier than ever in the Sunshine State.

A staggering 92 percent of the political ads run in Florida over the last week of the campaign have been negative.

“For as long as I’ve been in politics, 14 years, journalists call me and ask if this is the most negative election ad atmosphere I’ve ever seen,” says Kenneth Goldstein, president of Kantar Media CMAG, which tracks content and targeting of political advertising. “And every year I say, ‘Don’t be ridiculous.'”

“But this year it’s true. This primary season is the most negative it’s ever been,” asserts Goldstein. “I have absolutely never seen television advertising so negative in a Republican presidential primary.”

This tsunami of sleaze is being propelled by unprecedented advertising buys. The Romney campaign and its associated super PAC, Restore Our Future, have spent $15.3 million in Florida over the past month alone, according to Maggie Haberman of Politico. To put this in perspective, John McCain spent $11 million on ads during his entire 2008 primary campaign. Back on this side of Citizens United, Newt Gingrich and his billionaire-backed super PAC have spent “only” an estimated $3 million—giving Romney a 5-1 spending advantage in the Sunshine State.

The comparison of this year to 2008 isn’t really a valid one, of course, because SuperPACs did not exist in 2008. I’ve been unable to find a breakdown of the $15,000,000 figure to show much more is SuperPAC spending and how much is Romney campaign spending, but I’m willing to but that a substantial amount of it, if not the majority, constitutes ad spending by Restore Our Future. So, comparing what two separate entities spent in Florida this year to what the McCain campaign alone spent during a primary season that was essentially over by the time the Florida primary ended is an apples and oranges comparison that doesn’t tell us that much.

Of course, as Avlon admits, the Romney strategy to go negative against Gingrich has worked. It worked in Iowa to blunt Gingrich’s December rise in the polls that threatened to catapult him to a big win in the first contest of the cycle, and it worked in Florida:

The barrage of negative ads has been effective—Newt’s momentum coming off a South Carolina win seems to have been stopped by Romney’s money. It’s a play we saw in Iowa, where CMAG concluded that 45 percent of the total ads aired were anti-Newt, pushing Gingrich from first to fourth in a matter of weeks. Gingrich’s brief attempt to honor Reagan’s 11th commandment was not rewarded with popular support. In Florida, a must-win state for Romney, the decision was made to go all in: “In the last two weeks, they decided that the campaign would have the same level of negative as the super PAC,” asserts Wilson. “They realize that the fig leaf is off—and they’re using the same kind of messages, just as hard and vigorous.

And as Joe Hagan notes in New York magazine, what we’ve seen in Florida is just a preview of what we’ll see in the General Election:

Whereas in 2008 there were about 25 opposition researchers, the engine of any negative campaign, working for Obama’s campaign, the pro-Obama super-PACs, Priorities USA Action and American Bridge 21st Century, together add another 50. Even more will be added on the right, with American Crossroads, the super-PAC co-founded by the negative-campaigning guru Karl Rove, and the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity all staffed up and sharpening their arrows, ready to ally with whomever the nominee is and his respective super-PAC. That means that instead of two campaigns running against each other, there will be six or more, a virtual arms race of donor money, most of it anonymous, with overall television advertising spending expected to reach $3 billion in 2012. The tsunami of slime will overtake the public sphere for months.

Using a phrase like “tsunami of slime” makes it pretty clear how Hagan feels about this issue, as does the rest of the article. Nonetheless, even he must grudgingly admit a very simple fact of politics, negative ads work. Whether it’s the Willie Horton ad or the Bush campaign’s 2004 negative campaign against John Kerry, there’s plenty of evidence to show that a properly executed negative campaign that draws out the contrasts between the candidates, and the weaknesses of one’s opponent, are among the most effective ways to win a hard-fought political campaign where the actual differences between the candidates aren’t nearly as large as either side wants the voters to believe. If negative campaigning didn’t work, then campaigns wouldn’t engage in it to begin with.

Moreover, as I noted when I wrote about this issue in 2010, there’s some obfuscation over what actually constitutes “negative campaigning:”

The most famous (or infamous) negative ads — the 1964 “Daisy” ad, the “Willie Horton” ad, or the racially charged affirmative action ad that Jesse Helms ran in 1990 — have typically been those that have unfairly attacked a candidate on irrelevant or over-the-top grounds. When people refer to “negative ads” today, it’s clear that they’re including not just these types of ads, but also those that seek to, truthfully, contrast candidates or point out items in an opponents record. As long as the ads themselves are truthful, fair, and honest, they seem to me to be completely legitimate, and piling on a candidate who runs these types of ads for running a “negative campaign” is unfair and dishonest. Pointing out the differences between you and your opponent is an important part of a campaign,

It’s also worth noting that voters do tend to punish candidates who take negative campaigning too far, either by hitting their opponents on issues that are irrelevant to the election or by doing so untruthfully or unfairly. In 2008, Elizabeth Dole ran a despicable ad challenging her opponent’s Christian faith because she took a campaign contribution from a prominent atheist. She lost that election, in no small part because of the negative reaction that ensued when the ad received media attention. In 2010, Democrat Jack Conway unveiled a brutal last minute attack ad against Rand Paul, the so-called Aqua Buddha ad, that resulted in a strongly negative reaction from Paul and his supporters. While Conway was already trailing badly at the time, the polls after the ad ran showed pretty decisively that the voters in Kentucky were turned off by what Conway had done. That same year, Florida Congressman Alan Grayson ran a series of ads against his opponent that were widely perceived as false and unfair, and he lost his re-election bid as well. So, the voters aren’t quite as dumb as people like Hagan think they are and seem to clearly be able to tell the difference between legitimate attacks and unfair ones in the course of a political campaign.  Isn’t that how free speech is supposed to work?

Outside of the hand-wringing political pundits, the whole issue of “negative campaigning” strikes me as a non-issue. For one thing, he phrase “negative ad” is meaningless because it can be used to mean anything and ends becoming a pejorative to use against your opponent when he does something you don’t like. It is typically something that a candidate who is losing an election and doesn’t have the resources to respond to the attacks against him complains about, and it plays well with the candidate’s base, especially when that candidate is someone who likes to play up the victimization card the way Gingrich does. Outside of pundits and losing candidates, though, I still haven’t seen any evidence that voters actually care about the fact that a candidate runs “negative ads.”  They care about things like jobs and the economy, not process stories that political reporters commiserate about while sharing cocktails at the end of the day.

Finally, I’d just note that Avlon and Hagan’s theses about 2012 being the “most negative campaign ever” strikes me as suffering from an incredible sense of historical myopia. Have these men not heard of the Presidential campaigns of 1800, or 1860, or the smears against Grover Cleveland when he ran in 1888? If you think things are “bad” today, this is nothing compared to the way it used to be. But, of course, historical perspective isn’t really all that important to the hand-wringing set is it?

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2012, Politics 101, US Politics
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Brummagem Joe says:

    Negative campaigning is no more going out of fashion than sex of course. However, it’s surely hard to deny that the level of negativity in the Republican nominating process is at an unusualy high level. I really can’t remember any Republican campaign over the last 50 years being anything like as bad as this. It’s only counterpart was the Dems in the 80’s. This may not be entirely accidental.

  2. MBunge says:

    “Have these men not heard of the Presidential campaigns of 1800, or 1860, or the smears against Grover Cleveland when he ran in 1888?”

    Okay, this has to stop. When you have to go back more than a century to find an counter-example, that needs to be seen as an admission of the validity of the original contention.

    Mike

  3. @MBunge:

    Fine, then go look at the Election of 1920.

    Actually what your point shows is that our elections have actually become less negative over time. The hand-wringing set should consider that progress.

  4. Moosebreath says:

    On the other hand, over-the-top negative ads can work, as the 1986 PA Governor’s race shows. On the last weekend, Bob Casey (father of the current Senator) released the “sitar ad” showing his opponent Bill Scranton III as he looked circa 1969 and mentioned his practice of transcendental meditation (and strongly implied recreational drug use). Casey won by about 2%, getting far higher than typical totals for a Democrat in Pennsyltucky the center of the state.

    And 1828 was a pretty bad year for negative campaigning, as well.

  5. John Peabody says:

    Whenever someone says “these campaigns are the worst in recent memory”, it would be wise for the reader to question the intelligence of the writer.

  6. Brummagem Joe says:

    @John Peabody:

    Would you like to point to a recent Republican nominating campaign that has been as vitriolic as this one? I really can’t think of one. As to the general they’ve always been pretty bad, even back in the decorous Eisenhower era McCarthy was calling the great General George C. Marshall a communist agent and Eisenhower didn’t demur.

  7. PJ says:

    The comparison of this year to 2008 isn’t really a valid one, of course, because SuperPACs did not exist in 2008. I’ve been unable to find a breakdown of the $15,000,000 figure to show much more is SuperPAC spending and how much is Romney campaign spending, but I’m willing to but that a substantial amount of it, if not the majority, constitutes ad spending by Restore Our Future. So, comparing what two separate entities spent in Florida this year to what the McCain campaign alone spent during a primary season that was essentially over by the time the Florida primary ended is an apples and oranges comparison that doesn’t tell us that much.

    Does anyone actually believe that these are separate entities? That there isn’t any coordination?
    If so, then I have a bridge to sell.

    Add Romney’s negative campaigning to the list of things that will hurt him in the general election.

  8. MBunge says:

    @Doug Mataconis: “Fine, then go look at the Election of 1920.”

    Yes, a 90 year old example completely disproves the point I was making.

    Sheesh.

    Mike

  9. PD Shaw says:

    This was the Huckabee religious smear last time around. (Don’t Mormons Believe the Devil is the Brother of Jesus?)

  10. Rick Almeida says:

    @Brummagem Joe:

    Would you like to point to a recent Republican nominating campaign that has been as vitriolic as this one?

    How about the 2000 Republican primary campaign, where the Bush team allegedly push-polled SC Republicans asking if the knowledge that Sen. McCain fathered a black child out of wedlock improved or lessened their opinion of him?

    As a resident of SC and a political scientist, I can say unequivocally that the 2012 primary ads we saw here were tame in comparison.

  11. Brummagem Joe says:

    @MBunge:

    Doug’s examples are a bit off the wall but it’s hard to disagree with his general point that negative campaigning has been a constant feature of recent (ie. since the war) elections. The smearing of Kerry was totally egregious. The only respect in which so far this election has been different is the nasty tone of the Republican nominating process. This is definitely something new in modern times. The Goldwater nominating process was nowhere near as as bad as this from what I vaguely remember.

  12. Andre Kenji says:

    At least here in Brazil campaign strategists says that they are relutant to use negative campaign because, as they say, the ones that punches it lose it. They say that candidates that uses negative campaigning loses elections. I don´t know. That was not the case in the last presidential election.

    But, on the other hand, the Brazilian elections is an exemple of elections without SuperPACs and money. And it´s a process that most of the population has no voice.

  13. Brummagem Joe says:

    @Rick Almeida:” How about the 2000 Republican primary campaign, where the Bush team allegedly ”

    The keyword here is allegedly. I’ve seen this claim made many times but there’s not a lot of hard evidence. Do you have any? There was probably a bit of low level scandalmongering but it largely took place off the radar within only SC and didn’t impinge on the entire campaign .There has never been anything like this washing of dirty laundry in my memory.

  14. MBunge says:

    @Brummagem Joe: “Doug’s examples are a bit off the wall but it’s hard to disagree with his general point”

    I don’t actually mean to disagree with Doug’s point on negative campaigning. I’m just sick to death of seeing somebody say “X is unique/awful” and someone else respond with “But what about when X happened 100+ years ago”. If you’re arguing against an proposition and you can’t think of a counter-example from your own lifetime or even your father’s lifetime, you should just admit the proposition has some merit and move on from there.

    Mike

  15. Brummagem Joe says:

    @MBunge: “But what about when X happened 100+ years ago”.

    Er…Doug is not unknown to stretch a point to justify some of his contentions. LOL

  16. You’re both missing my point. Whether it happened 100 years ago or not, the claim by Avalon et al that things have never been more negative isn’t true.

  17. Rick Almeida says:

    @Brummagem Joe:

    The keyword here is allegedly.

    I knew I should have phrased this better.

    What is alleged is that the Bush campaign was behind the calls. That the robocalls happened is not in dispute.

  18. Bleev K says:

    Avlon, not Avalon.

  19. Brummagem Joe says:

    @Rick Almeida: “That the robocalls happened is not in dispute.”

    I’ll take your word for it but on what scale and for how long. There’s scarcely a campaign when there isn’t some crazy robocall minor scandal. I’ve always thought this was an alibi by McCain to explain his loss which was almost certainly much more due to a well oiled Rove machine than this sort of stuff. Either way it’s not remotely in the league of@Doug Mataconis: candidates calling each deranged, vulture capitalists, etc etc.

  20. Brummagem Joe says:

    @Brummagem Joe:

    Not sure what happened there. Doug didn’t call anyone anything

  21. Brummagem Joe says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    Strictly that may be true but by taking examples from aeons ago politically speaking you’re weakening the merit of your argument which is entirely valid.

  22. @Brummagem Joe:

    Those examples were cited in response to the silly argument from Avlon and Hagan and the people they quote in their respective articles that things have never been worse than they are now. That is all.

  23. @Bleev K:

    Sigh, yes. Fixed.

  24. Barb Hartwell says:

    Maybe negative campaigns have been going on for a long time, but now it is everywhere we turn. Media outlets have increased so everywhere you watch, read your bombarded with negative information about someone. I remember the days when you only had to listen to this crap a few months every four years now it is non stop campaigning, for something.

  25. Brummagem Joe says:

    @Barb Hartwell:

    You put your finger on it here. Basically campaigning never ceases because we have a lot of people making a lot of money out of turning politicss into a branch of the entertainment industry.

  26. Barb & Joe,

    Welcome to the 365/24/7 cable/internet news cycle, otherwise known as the future. Not much we can to do stop it now.

  27. Brummagem Joe says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    This of course include you Doug….oodles of laughter

  28. Tsar Nicholas says:

    I for one love negative campaigning. The greatest ad of all time has to be the Willie Horton piece. The 2nd greatest has to be the “Daisy” ad. Shit, if I were a candidate for office every single one of my campaign ads would be a negative attack against my opponent’s track record. As long as it’s true and not completely over the top batshit crazy negative campaigning absolutely is the correct path. It’s effective. It’s entertaining. In politics you have to take the gloves off. That this even is a conversation topic is plain silly. People need to grow a pair. These are elections for crucial public offices about which we’re speaking. They’re not grad school debate societies or country club coffee klatches.

  29. Perhaps the best video ever put out by Reason Magazine:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y_zTN4BXvYI

  30. merl says:

    @Brummagem Joe: You don’t remember what Bush did to McCain? Trashing a man’s family is as low as you can go.

  31. PJ says:

    A staggering 92 percent of the political ads run in Florida over the last week of the campaign have been negative.

    67.6% of the ads Gingrich and his SuperPAC ran were negative.

    99.6% of the ads Romney and his SuperPAC ran were negative.

  32. An Interested Party says:

    99.6% of the ads Romney and his SuperPAC ran were negative.

    Perhaps a taste of things to come in the general election…those who are hand-wringing now probably ain’t seen nothing yet…

  33. A voice from another precinct says:

    @Timothy Watson: Liked that! Moving on, I expect that many of the population can understand the hyperbole of statements such as “there has never been (fill in the blank)” even though most of them may not know what hyperbole means. I hearby declare both sides to be right–Doug on literality merits, the others on context.

    For me, the real problem with negative ads of any sort is that I am not so simple minded that I can connect “Candidate X is not good” with “therefore Candidate Y is better.” Based on what these guys stand for in there website policy stuff, the gruel is pretty thin no matter who we are voting for–in either party.

  34. Barb Hartwell says:

    Who knows maybe America will cash in for an award ceremony for best negative ad.