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Obama vs. Romney: 'World War III" for attack ads. But is that bad?

With five months to go until Election Day, the Romney and Obama campaigns are already slinging negative ads. But analysts suggest they're an essential part of voters' decision-making process.

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What’s more, attack ads that mock, distort, and caricature candidates have a legacy going back decades, possibly centuries. The campaigns of the Founding Fathers were notorious for ugly name-calling such as Thomas Jefferson’s battle against John Adams in 1800. According to Paul F. Boller’s book “Presidential Campaigns,” Adams’s Federalist allies distributed pamphlets and other printed materials accusing Jefferson of being a fraud, a cheat, a Deist, and, worst of all, a “Jacobin” – an insult derived from the French Revolution.

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The mark of an effective negative ad is believability, one that plays on a viewer’s bias or suspicions, says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. “The best ads are close to what you think you already know,” she says.

Likewise, Bob Shrum, a legendary Democratic consultant who made his living crafting ad campaigns for Al Gore's and John Kerry’s presidential bids, among others, argues that the standard should be whether the ads are relevant and truthful. However, as he writes in his 2007 book “No Excuses: Confessions of a Serial Campaigner:” “The fine points inevitably tend to get lost in a 30-second spot.”

One reason that negative advertising and political ads get so much criticism, Mr. Shrum asserts, is “they shift the balance of power over voter perception away from the media and toward the paid political class,” he writes. In other words, the media don’t like political advertising because it’s competition.

Ms. Jamieson agrees that attack ads serve a purpose in helping voters select someone to support, filling out the spaces that might otherwise remain blank in a candidate’s résumé or stump speeches.

“There’s nothing wrong with attacks in politics: if it’s accurate [and] fair. … The problem occurs when it’s deceptive or when there’s so much of it,” she says. “When it’s the dominant form of discourse, it crowds out other forms of discourse, the case that candidates make for themselves.”

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