Albert R. Hunt: Negative ads could haunt the president-elect

10/19/2012 12:00 AM

10/18/2012 5:29 PM

John Geer, one of the most thoughtful and engaged U.S. political scientists, is a fan of negative campaigns.

A central tenet of democracy, the Vanderbilt University professor says, “is to criticize those in power.” Further, he notes that casting an informed vote for a politician is like buying a car, requiring knowledge of the good and bad, and the candidate himself will only give you half the story.

Yet even Geer is shaking his head at this year’s race. “This is setting records for the most negative campaign,” he said.

The thousands of television commercials broadcast by the presidential candidates are lopsidedly negative; this is the case with 80 percent of those put out by President Obama and 84 percent of those for Mitt Romney.

This is all the more true when it comes to spending by outside groups. The super political action committees on both sides, along with business, conservative and labor organizations, are running negative ads more than 90 percent of the time, according to Kantar Media’s CMAG, which tracks advertising.

At the presidential level, Geer said, the negativity is predictable.

“These ads work; it’s a polarized electorate and both candidates offer material. There’s an incumbent with a checkered record and a challenger who can’t even talk about his record,” he said. “That’s a perfect cocktail for negativity.”

Campaign strategists of both parties dismiss public criticism. There are innumerable examples that this stuff works and few to the contrary, they say. A study in the American Journal of Political Science last year showed that the more engaged voters, those more likely to vote, are the least offended by negative pitches.

Some television ads are designed primarily to attract press coverage. For example, the Obama campaign did a commercial making fun of Romney for his refusal to list any of the trillions of dollars of tax loopholes he has promised to eliminate, even as he vows to do away with federal funding for public television. This was less an advertising tool than a way to get coverage, including clips rebroadcast on news programs.

Along with offering legitimate criticism of the other side, campaigns should set predicates for governing. Ronald Reagan did so in 1980, as did Bill Clinton in 1992 and, for the most part, Obama four years ago.

This campaign, with less than three weeks to go, has been a failure on this score. The winner will face huge challenges: a possible national security crisis with Iran, persistent instability in South Asia, and domestically, the need for unpopular actions on taxes and entitlements, and decisions on whether and how to alter Obama’s health care law. There is little that either side offers on the stump, and nothing in the television commercials, that deals with these realities, positively or negatively.

Obama savages Romney’s record of shipping jobs overseas as a private-equity executive and holding bank accounts in Switzerland and the Cayman Islands.

Romney, in an ad, suggests that Obama is falsely accusing him of proposing a $5 trillion tax cut. Actually, Romney has proposed a $4.8 trillion tax cut. He claims that would be offset by closing loopholes but refuses to tell voters what they would be.

As a result of this negative focus, one of these candidates will wake up president-elect on Nov. 7 and may try to claim a mandate he doesn’t have.

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