As election nears, a flood of nastiness
Harsh attack ads flourish in tight races as control of Congress hangs in the balance.
WASHINGTON — A taxpayer-funded call to a fantasy sex hot line. Support for using Taser weapons on 7-year-olds. Votes in Congress to deny modern body armor to US troops in Iraq.
These are but a few of the charges leveled in campaign ads against candidates for office this fall, in what some experts say is probably the most negative US election campaign in modern times.
Nasty, misleading ads have been around for decades, and it's impossible to prove empirically that the 2006 campaign tops them all, but the wave of over-the-top claims has caught the attention of both casual observers and professionals.
"Politics has always been a contact sport, but it really does feel like the rhetoric has crossed a line," says Evan Tracey, a campaign ad analyst at TNS Media Intelligence in Arlington, Va. "We've had ads with baby-crying noises from dumpsters, Playboy mansions, criminals coming over the border creating crime and mayhem. And that's the tame stuff."
Control of Congress hangs in the balance, and in many cases, the highly negative ads are coming out of close races where strategists – either for the campaigns or from the parties and independent groups that are trying to help – believe they will make a difference. They can also be seen as a sign of desperation. In some cases the ads appear to work and in others they backfire (see story below), but when a candidate is trailing badly, strategists often feel there's nothing to lose.
Perhaps the most talked-about ad of this cycle took shots at Rep. Harold Ford (D) of Tennessee, who is running for the Senate. The ad – which ended with a blond, scantily clad woman saying, "Call me" – was perceived by some viewers as racially motivated, since Mr. Ford is black and the woman in the ad is white. If nothing else, the uproar over the ad demonstrated that sensitivities about possible racial innuendo are alive and well in American politics.
As distasteful as negative ads can be to the viewing public, many campaign experts defend them for their ability to provide useful information to voters.
"There's nothing inherently wrong with negative advertising, if it's accurate," says Brooks Jackson, a former journalist and director of the Annenberg Political Fact Check project. "A positive ad can also be inaccurate and misleading. That's political disinformation that's also a bad thing."
Often, though, negative ads contain a kernel of truth that is distorted beyond the point of fairness. Take the "fantasy hot line" ad unleashed against Michael Arcuri (D), district attorney in New York's Oneida County, who hopes to fill the seat of retiring Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R). The National Republican Campaign Committee (NRCC) created a spot accusing Mr. Arcuri of billing taxpayers for a phone call to a sex hot line, and depicting Arcuri with the silhouette of a dancing girl. According to records released by Arcuri's campaign, the truth is that someone misdialed the hot line in a call from Arcuri's hotel room, hung up in seconds, and dialed the intended number – the state Department of Criminal Justice Services in Albany.
Arcuri's Republican opponent, state Sen. Ray Meier, also denounced the ad and called on the NRCC to pull it, but by law, political campaigns are barred from conferring with groups that make independent expenditures on candidates' behalf. Ultimately, the ad did not air on most stations in that part of New York, according to the local press.
Democrats are also producing their share of negative ads deemed unfair by watchdog groups. Mr. Jackson's group, which posts its findings at www.factcheck.org, found 11 ads by Democrats that accused Republican incumbents of voting against a $1,500 bonus for US troops.
One such ad, produced by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) and aired in New Mexico to support House challenger Patricia Madrid, accused her opponent of voting against the bonus (and for a congressional pay raise) – but failed to note that the bonus would have come at the expense of reconstruction funds for Iraq. Rep. Heather Wilson (R), the incumbent, is locked in a tight race with Ms. Madrid, state attorney general.
Between the two House campaign committees, the Republicans are beating the Democrats in the race to the bottom. According to a report released last week on Factcheck.org, the NRCC so far this cycle has spent $41.9 million attacking Democrats and $5 million supporting Republicans – about 8 to 1 negative versus positive advertising. The DCCC has spent $18 million on attacks and $3.1 million on positive ads – a 5 to 1 ratio.
Looking at all campaign spending for all races – projected to come in at $2.6 billion, a record for a midterm election – ad-watchers cannot say for certain which party is more guilty of attacks. "I would guarantee you it's equal opportunity," says Mr. Tracey. "The Republican Party is not Darth Vader and the Democrats are not Luke Skywalker. It's basically, once one goes negative, everybody goes negative."
Whether negative ads drive down turnout is open to debate. But if it does, says Tracey, that's not the ads' fault. "This is America, where you've got this great right people die and bleed for. If you're going to let a bunch of silly commercials stop you from voting, it's your fault."
Still, any political candidate knows that blaming voters for their decisions – including whether or not to vote – is a losing proposition. And so, aware of the public's distaste for negativity, many see the good-cop bad-cop routine at work in Missouri. There, Senate candidate Claire McCaskill (D), locked in a close race to unseat Sen. James Talent (R), says she will not air negative ads, knowing well that the party and surrogates will do the dirty work.
But Ms. McCaskill has herself attacked Senator Talent's positions, his loyalty to President Bush, and his campaign donations, notes David Robertson, a political scientist at the University of Missouri in St. Louis. She also approved ads featuring actor Michael J. Fox, who is diagnosed with Parkinson's disease and who favors embryonic stem-cell research, in which Mr. Fox asserts that Talent wants to "criminalize the science that gives us a chance for hope."
But, Mr. Robertson adds, Talent's ads have been perceived to be more personal and mean-spirited than McCaskill's. "These ads have hurt his image as a nice-guy, conservative, policy wonk," he says.