In Defense Of “Negative” Ads

Once again, the political media is wringing it's hands over "negative" ads. As usual, it's all a bunch of nonsense.

On Tuesday night in California, Republican Meg Whitman found herself put on the spot by Today show host Matt Lauer at a joint campaign appearance with her opponent Jerry Brown:

Republican gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman drew a chorus of boos from the capacity crowd at a major women’s gathering Tuesday after going on the attack against Democratic opponent Jerry Brown and refusing to withdraw negative television ads, as Brown said he would, for the rest of the campaign.

The raucous scene took place at California first lady Maria Shriver’s annual Women’s Conference, where the two candidates appeared onstage with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger before a mostly female crowd of 14,000 at the Long Beach convention center. The conversation was led by “Today” show host Matt Lauer.

Brown and Whitman were met with cheers at the start of the hourlong event, which was their only appearance with Schwarzenegger. The exchange was probably their last face-to-face encounter before Tuesday’s election. Recent polls show Whitman falling behind Brown in the race.

Midway through their appearance, Lauer threw the candidates a curve when he described the race as one of the most contentious ever and challenged them to drop their highly personal attack ads.

“End the negativity,” he said, to cheers from the crowd. “Pull your negative ads and replace them with positive ads,” he added, to give California voters “a break.”

Brown, the state attorney general, said, “If Meg wants to do that, I’ll be glad to do it. … I’ll pledge that right now.”

Whitman, however, appeared uncomfortable and demurred, saying she had been a victim of campaign “character attacks.” The former eBay CEO said some of her ads were designed to point out differences between her and Brown on policy issues, while others highlighted his record as a former two-term governor and Oakland mayor.

As the video of the exchange shows, Whitman was put on the spot, and it didn’t go well:

The ironic thing about Brown’s high-horse response is that, within a day of the campaign, he came out with an negative ad attacking Whitman for not taking down her negative ads:

The first observation I’d make about this whole exchange on Tuesday night is that Matt Lauer ended up being a bit of a jerk. He was there to be the moderator of a conference sponsored by the Governor of California and his wife, and ending up becoming a player in the election by putting one of the major party candidates on the spot about what is, ultimately, a phony issue. There really was no good way for Whitman to answer Lauer’s question. If she said yes, then she would be responsible not only for her own ads, but also for the ads of third parties over which she has no control and which, under the law, she’s not even allowed to coordinate with. If she said no, then she comes across looking as the bad guy who wants to run “negative ads.” To put it bluntly, Matt Lauer gave a very large in-kind contribution to the Jerry Brown campaign on Tuesday night, and there’s a part of me that wonders if that wasn’t what he had in mind all along.

More broadly, though, I find this annual media onslaught against “negative ads” to be complete nonsense for the most part. For one thing, the definition of what constitutes a “negative ad” has changed greatly over the years. 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, and candidates shouldn’t be put on the spot for doing that the way Whitman was.

Moreover, for all the complaining about true “negative ads,” it’s pretty clear that the political process itself is very self-regulating when it comes to punishing candidates who go too far. When Elizabeth Dole ran a despicable ad challenging her opponent’s Christian faith because she took a campaign contribution from a prominent atheist, the voters of North Carolina reacted negatively. This year, Jack Conway’s “Aqua Buddha” ad seems to have put the final nail into the coffin of his campaign, and, down in Florida, bombastic Congressman Alan Grayson seems headed for defeat after running two ads against his opponent that were, to put it bluntly, blatantly false. So, a candidate who goes over the top usually gets punished in the end.

Finally, there’s this one obvious truth — political candidates would not run “negative ads” if they didn’t think they would work. If voters want to find anyone to blame for “negative ads” then what they really need to do is look in the mirror.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2010, 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. john personna says:

    Lauer was putting politicians on the spot, something rare in free-pass America.

    And we saw from Brown that it was easy to give the correct answer. All Whitman had to do was say the same … and then run any ads she thought were about “issues” and not “personal attacks.”

    It was so easy. The audience booed because it was an epic fail.

    Again, were she called on any ad later she would say that was not an attack ad, that was an issues ad.

  2. Lauer was bringing up a phony issue and putting Whitman in an impossible situation.

    Of course, Brown said yes. He’s the front-runner right now and he can afford to. As I said in the post, Whitman was screwed no matter what she said. Which is why I don’t think it was a fair question.

    Also, if Lauer was going to put the candidates “on the spot” it would have been nice if he’d put them on the spot about actual issues instead of process stories. Of course, what else can one expect from a guy who hosts an entertainment show.

  3. john personna says:

    Lauer was bringing up a phony issue and putting Whitman in an impossible situation.

    Way to repeat your subject conclusion as if it were objective fact.

  4. sam says:

    ” As I said in the post, Whitman was screwed no matter what she said”

    Yeah,and not just on that show. Anybody who runs an ad saying how good things were 30 years ago in California that allows her opponent to then run an ad reminding folks that he was governor 30 years ago, is fubar.

  5. Then tell me why I’m wrong.

    Tell me why “negative” ads are something that matter

  6. john personna says:

    Did you read my first response Doug? I was trying to say that ads can be what you call them. You can call just about anything an issues ad, if it hits some issues.

    Now, part of Whitman’s reluctance might be that she knew which ads were coming. I think have seen some that essentially say “Brown is bad, don’t elect Brown or bad things will happen.”

    If you don’t hit an issue, that is pretty clearly negative campaigning. I don’t think it works, but I guess it’s what candidates do when they are hitting desperation phase.

  7. sam says:

    Did I say you were wrong?

  8. john personna says:

    Yeah, the boo was definitely about the self-knowledge that Whitman’s answer implied.

    If she couldn’t say yes, she knew what she was doing.

  9. John,

    And my point goes beyond this particular race in California.

    The phrase “negative ad” is essentially meaningless because it can be used to mean anything and it essentially becomes a pejorative to use against your opponent when he does something you don’t like. I still haven’t seen any evidence that voters actually care about the fact that a candidate runs “negative ads,” either. For the most part this seems to be a process story that the chattering classes love to talk about, but which doesn’t really matter in Peoria.

    As for whether they work or not, all I can say is that campaigns would not be spending tens of thousands of dollars to create and air them if they didn’t

    @Sam,

    I was responding to John, you must’ve posted before I did so that it looked like a reply

  10. john personna says:

    I think he was talking to me, Sam

  11. john personna says:

    I still haven’t seen any evidence that voters actually care about the fact that a candidate runs “negative ads,” either.

    You mean beyond the message of the boo itself, of course.

    Or as you said above ” it’s pretty clear that the political process itself is very self-regulating when it comes to punishing candidates who go too far.”

    There might be some contradiction in your position there. I think the “self-regulating” part is good, and was happy to see Lauer, and the audience, play their part in it. Not you?

  12. sam says:

    oops, crosstalk, I think.

  13. John

    The reaction of a group of people who are already obviously politically engaged to a higher degree than most voters merely by their attendance at this forum does not necessarily represent the feelings of voters as a whole. Additionally, it seems fairly apparent from experience that voters may say that they don’t like “negative campaigning,” but they clearly react positively to such campaigning when it’s done by people they support.

    I don’t necessarily see Lauer as part of the “self-regulating,” I see him as the smug, scolding host of an entertainment show with an inflated sense of his own self-importance. We already get candidate forums where time is wasted with stupid questions, I don’t think Lauer did anything to advance public discourse with that exchange.

  14. john personna says:

    That seems a pretty subjective conclusion, Doug.

    It also seems a bit like hand-waving. Since that audience disagreed with you, they must all be wonks. LOL

  15. John,

    You’ve just broken the code.

    It is all subjective. What constitutes a “negative” ad is completely in the eye (or ear) of the viewer (or listener).

    That’s why I think all the inside-the-beltway hand wringing over “negative campaigning” is mostly nonsense.

  16. john personna says:

    Contradiction alert:

    “It is all subjective”

    “‘negative campaigning’ is mostly nonsense.”

  17. John

    Yea that’s my opinion. That’s sort of the whole point of this blogging thing

  18. john personna says:

    Well, you are really asserting something about the public response. That has been your essential contradiction from the beginning. This one sentence captures it all:

    Moreover, for all the complaining about true “negative ads,” it’s pretty clear that the political process itself is very self-regulating when it comes to punishing candidates who go too far.

    For all the complaining, they are self-regulating.

    Do you really suppose they could be self-regulating without the complaining?

  19. John,

    The sentence you quote comes as part of discussion of over the top ads like the Dole ad and the Conway ad.

    I’m not saying that there isn’t some threshold beyond which the voters aren’t willing to tolerate a campaign’s tone, what I am saying is that the phrase “negatve ads” and “negative campaigning” is meaningless and that most of the consternation we hear about these phenomenon come from pundits rather than voters.

    Let’s face it campaigns have always been negative. Go back to the Election of 1800, the Jacksonian Era, and the pre-Civil War era for examples of campaigning that makes even the worst “negative ad” that’s run today seem tame by comparison.

    Sometimes the most effective thing a candidate can do is point out the differences between themselves and their opponent. When something like this gets labeled “negative campaigning” then it’s fairly clear that the term is just being used as a pejorative.

  20. john personna says:

    I’m not saying that there isn’t some threshold beyond which the voters aren’t willing to tolerate a campaign’s tone, what I am saying is that the phrase “negatve ads” and “negative campaigning” is meaningless and that most of the consternation we hear about these phenomenon come from pundits rather than voters.

    Again, I see contradiction.

    If there is some threshold, then conversation about what constitutes “negatve ads” and “negative campaigning” is necessary to identify it.

  21. John,

    If there is some threshold, then conversation about what constitutes “negatve ads” and “negative campaigning” is necessary to identify it.

    For what purpose ?

    Its up to the voters, at the polls, to decide those things.

  22. john personna says:

    Contradiction alert?

    The voters should decide without conversation?

  23. john personna says:

    “shut up and vote.”

  24. John

    I happen to think the voters are smart enough to decide when a candidate has gone too far without a smug guy like Lauer jetting in from New York and putting his thumb on the scale the way he did.

    If there was an issue with a specific ad that Whitman was running, that’s one thing. But to try to extract from her a pledge not to run any “negative” ads was grandstanding and stupid.

  25. reid says:

    “Smug guy”, “jetting in from New York?” Come on, Doug, you’re letting your hate for Hollywood-ish elitists get to you.

    I’m not in California, but if it’s anything like New Mexico, the ads on TV and radio are out of hand. People are probably fed up with the tone and sheer number of them. I imagine Lauer was just expressing that sentiment. Maybe it was a little out of line given his role there, but not something to get outraged about. As jp says, Whitman could have gone along with it and still run ads that question Brown’s record or policies.

    Here, the ratio of negative to positive ads feels like about 90/10. A lot of them are the type that suggest that a former DA did something unethical, that the lieutenant governor was letting friends fly around on her jet, that so-and-so voted with Pelosi 97% of the time (horrors!), that he voted for the disastrous (?) stimulus. Not a lot of substance, but a lot of innuendo and trying to feed the tea party themes that are supposed to be the mood of the people this year. All said in those annoying professional worried voices. They’re throwing tons of mud hoping it sticks or looking for the big knockout ad. Very annoying and, with so much money flowing into campaigns, non-stop.

  26. rodney dill says:

    How is saying my opponent is positively stupid, negative?

  27. mantis says:

    It is all subjective. What constitutes a “negative” ad is completely in the eye (or ear) of the viewer (or listener).

    Which is why it was such an easy question to answer, and Whitman failed to recognize that. She wasn’t screwed either way, as others have pointed out. She screwed herself.

    That Matt Lauer is a rather dim egotist is pretty indisputable, but most TV news people are.