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As election nears, a flood of nastiness

Harsh attack ads flourish in tight races as control of Congress hangs in the balance.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 31, 2006


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.

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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.

Ads as sources of information

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.