Postively Negative

Everyone detests campaign attack ads_ until its election time

On the Trail// 22 days until Nov. 7

October 16, 2006|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,sun reporter

Both Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Mayor Martin O'Malley have experience with campaign ads designed to make you feel good about them: Ehrlich talking about his modest upbringing in Arbutus, "where flags fly on the Fourth," and O'Malley's mother rhapsodizing about his sterling character.

You won't be seeing any more of them. As the Nov. 7 election grows closer, the candidates' ads have gone almost entirely negative - a shift that reflects both the closeness of the race for governor and a modern political strategy to tag an opponent with a negative label (like flip-flopper) and reinforce it through relentless repetition.

Even Lt. Gov. Michael Steele's puppy has been put to sleep (metaphorically, of course), replaced by an array of garbage cans that symbolize, Steele says in one new ad, "trash from my opponent." He then goes on to trash his opponent.

FOR THE RECORD - Due to an editing error, an article in the Today section yesterday on negative campaign ads incorrectly said that the U.S. Supreme Court had overturned the Sedition Act. The court never ruled on the act directly -- it expired in 1801 -- but in subsequent opinions has questioned its constitutionality.

In opinion polls, most Americans consistently say they're sick of negative campaigning and attack ads. They want positive ads, they want clean campaigns. Whatever voters say they want or don't want, however, political strategists insist that negative ads continue to proliferate for one simple reason: They work. Voters pay attention and respond to them.

"It's kind of like why we watch NASCAR," said Evan Tracey, director of the Campaign Media Analysis Group in Arlington, Va. "Half the people are rooting for a car and half the people are rooting for a wreck."

Negative campaigns go back at least to Thomas Jefferson and probably to the very beginning of electoral politics in ancient Greece, but lately the practice has been honed to a science. It's not merely about saying bad stuff about the other guy. To make it stick, campaigns choose a theme to define the opposition and then hammer it home in every ad, mailer, speech or any other form of communication they might use. Everything must be of a piece, and you must have a plan to hit the theme everyday.

"The most effective [negative ads] are a series that build upon each other with a basic underlying theme," said Chris Lehane, a Democratic consultant who worked for Gen. Wesley Clark and Sen. John Kerry in 2004. "The best negative ads are consistent in terms of a theme. You want people to get a broader picture."

In 2004, he said, President Bush repeatedly hit Kerry with charges that he was a flip-flopper who couldn't be trusted to do the right thing. In 1996, President Bill Clinton kept saying Sen. Bob Dole was going to take the country backward. Neither Kerry nor Dole was able to overcome the impression created by those charges.

"If attack ads stress the same theme, it's probably because there are a lot of reasons to believe that's a vulnerability," said John G. Geer, a political scientist at Vanderbilt University and author of the recently published In Defense of Negativity, a study of presidential campaign ads from 1960 to 2004.

"In 2004, Kerry was attacked a lot for changing his mind on issues. Why? Because he changed his mind on issues," Geer said. He said campaigns that change themes are campaigns that haven't found their footing.

This year, Ehrlich is hitting on the theme that O'Malley "promised and failed" on big issues, such as crime reduction in Baltimore. The ads may change - the Ehrlich campaign has put up a new one every seven to 10 days - but the message remains the same.

O'Malley, meanwhile, is running a "broken promises" and "failed leadership" campaign against Ehrlich. The mayor's ads charge that Ehrlich "broke his promise" on education funding, and his campaign has sent a series of e-mails to reporters and supporters under the theme "Bob Ehrlich: Commitments Made ... Commitments Broken."

Both negative campaigns ramped up in September, after spending the summer introducing the candidates with positive, soft-focus ads. All politicians run those ads, and they tend to cancel each other out, strategists say.

The key is a sustained, thematic attack that culminates in the weeks before the election, with statistics, voting records and newspaper clips. "In boxing, you can steal a round with a flurry of punches in the last 30 seconds," Lehane said. "And that's what they're trying to do with negative ads."

Attack ads are often criticized as damaging to the political process, particularly by politicians who are on the receiving end of them. But a growing legion of political scientists and academics view negative ads as giving voters useful and specific information on candidates, such as policy positions and voting records.

"Negative ads are more likely to talk about issues than positive ads and they're more likely to include supporting sources to back up their claims," said Joel Rivlin, deputy director of the University of Wisconsin Advertising Project. "There's this assumption that negative equals bad. I can point to lots of positive ads which are inane and don't give people a lot of information. They're 30-second postcards."

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