Negative political ads will be back in 1988, says GOP pollster
Washington — Negative advertising will be a big part of the next American election, says a leading Republican strategist. The reason: ``Negative ads work,'' says Robert Teeter, who does polling for a number of top Republicans, including Vice-President George Bush.
Use of negative ads soared during Election '86, especially on TV. In some states, such as California, Georgia, and Missouri, the ads apparently played a major role in the outcome.
Mr. Teeter says that in the past most negative advertising, which attacks a political opponent in a personal way, was confined to radio and direct mail. Personal attacks were seldom aired on television.
Also, negative ads were usually confined to the final two or three weeks of a campaign.
That changed in 1986. Teeter, who spoke at a breakfast with reporters on Thursday, says that a number of Democratic candidates went on the air with negative commercials at least eight weeks ahead of election day. In California, US Sen. Alan Cranston launched his TV attacks against his opponent, US Rep. Ed Zschau, five months before the election.
Sometimes the effort backfired. Harriett Woods, Democratic candidate for the United States Senate in Missouri, used about 80 to 90 percent of her TV time to run negative commercials against her Republican opponent. The public didn't like it, and the GOP picked up the Missouri seat.
But in California, Senator Cranston's early attack against Congressman Zschau kept the GOP off balance, and Cranston squeaked through with a narrow victory.
In Georgia, Sen. Mack Mattingly lost to his Democratic challenger, US Rep. Wyche Fowler. One apparent reason for the loss was that Senator Mattingly failed to run enough negative ads.
Teeter says negative ads work against both incumbents and challengers. But the strategy is different in each case.
Challengers need to be kept off balance. Most challengers are not very well known (such as Zschau in California). So the incumbent's strategy is to say something bad about the challenger.
Sometimes the negative commercial will be all the public knows about the challenger, so the challenger must spend valuable time trying to repair the damage. That's what happened to Zschau.
But the ads also work against incumbents. Teeter says that incumbents have four areas of potential vulnerability: (1) If they don't care enough about their jobs, and can be criticized for such faults as absenteeism; (2) If they don't care enough about the people back home; (3) If they are corrupt; and (4) If they are bunglers or poor performers.
``Any one of those four will take you out,'' says Teeter.
The down side of negative advertising may be its effect on the voters. It can sour the public on politics. That could be one reason voter turnout fell in 1986, especially among young people, Teeter says.
Teeter also spoke about 1988 prospects for the Democratic Party, and for Vice-President Bush.
Democrats shouldn't be greatly encouraged by 1986, says Teeter, because this year's elections did nothing to solve their long-term problems. Democrats still must find a coalition that will broaden their Northeastern base into other regions of the country - either the South or the West.
Unless that coalition can be expanded, Democratic prospects for winning the White House will be poor. Yet Teeter suggests the party will have an extremely difficult time nominating presidential candidates who will appeal to voters in either region.
Bush remains far out front for the Republican nomination, Teeter says. But soon the vice-president must begin to chart his own course.
Teeter says Bush must begin to enunciate ideas of his own to show that he can be a capable leader apart from Ronald Reagan. These ideas must show the direction Bush would take the country as he built on the eight Reagan years.
It isn't enough to be close to Reagan, says Teeter. Americans have approved of the Reagan years, but now they want to look ahead. Bush must show that he can do that.