If there is one Darwinian
adaptation that the American people have made to modern times, it is the
ability to sift through a wide variety of claims and to determine for
themselves which are specious and which are accurate. We realize that the days
during which we could trust any one media outlet or candidate to give us the
full story are long over -- if they ever existed in the first place. We realize
that truth is a synthesis of the various claims made by the left and the right,
the Democrats and Republicans, and the incumbents and the challengers.
Voters see negative advertising as another form of information. They so
distrust politicians that they want to see their opponents tear them down so
they can get at the truth. In fact, voter attitudes toward politicians are akin
to their opinions of criminal defendants (they could be forgiven for confusing
the two). Just as juries want a prosecutor who tears the defendant apart and
punches holes in his alibi, so they want a political candidate to run ads
exposing his opponent.
Of course, negative ads do not always work. Sometimes they backfire big time.
So when a candidate runs a negative ad, he takes his life, career, and
reputation in his hands. If the ad turns out not to be true and an alert
opponent jumps on him and runs a rebuttal ad exposing its inaccuracies, he can
lose the election in a heartbeat.
Voters have a skilled baloney detector embedded in their consciousness. They
know that politicians who have proclaimed their own honesty have ended up in
prison, while others who say "read my lips, no new taxes" have broken
their solemn vows and jacked up rates anyway. So they watch all television with
suspicion. To succeed, negative ads must work overtime to get in under the
Negative ads must emphasize fairness and accuracy even at the price of having
less overt impact. The best negative ad I ever ran was for Jeff Bingaman in
his 1982 race to unseat astronaut turned Sen. Harrison "Jack"
Schmitt. The ad went as follows: "Do you think we should drill for oil in
national parks and wilderness areas? The candidates for Senate disagree. Jack
Schmitt says yes, we need the oil. Jeff Bingaman says no, we need to protect
our national heritage more. Two good men run for Senate, but they disagree on oil
drilling in parks and wilderness areas. So, on Election Day, vote for the o ne
who agrees with you." The ad appeared so evenhanded -- and was so accurate
-- that it overcame voter distrust and led to an upset victory for Bingaman.
To work, negative ads must be believable. To accuse an opponent of being soft
on child molesters won't work. It lacks credibility. One cannot ask voters to
believe such ill of an opponent that he deserves not just defeat but
imprisonment. But to say that he puts his perception of constitutional rights
ahead of convicting child molesters does work.
Paint a picture. Negatives must be thematic. John McCain, in the current
campaign, is too scattershot, one day hitting Barack Obama for his Chicago
political connections and then accusing him of vapid celebrity the next. It is
only when the negative campaign paints a consistent picture that it can work.
Some political consultants, including most Republicans, treat positive
advertisements like the overture before the show begins, marking time until the
real campaign starts and the negatives begin to hit. That's wrong. Positive ads
that explain a program, develop a theme, or spell out hot-button issues are
still the most effective communications in politics. But negative ads work and
have their place. They are how the voters find truth in a morass of claims and
counterclaims. With much of the media oriented toward the left or the right,
negative ads are often the only way voters can penetrate the claims of the
various campaigns and get the facts.
Voters always tell pollsters that they hate negative ads, but politicians
continue to run them. That's because the same polls show that they work. In a
world with flawed politicians, we need negative ads; otherwise, we won't know
candidates' defects until it's too late.