Attack ads sometimes backfire

The race for governor in Massachusetts highlights what can happen when campaign attacks backfire.

A strong offense initially helped Republican Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey trim a more than 20-point deficit with her Democrat rival, Deval Patrick, to just 13 points by mid-October. David Paleologos, a pollster at Suffolk University in Boston, attributed her rise to an attack on Mr. Patrick's credentials on crime.

But since then, Ms. Healey appears to have fallen victim to her own attacks. A Suffolk poll released last week shows Patrick opening a 27-point lead over Healey, who has climbed to a high 53 percent unfavorability rating among voters. Mr. Paleologos says her more recent attacks have had an obvious effect, with 61 percent of voters saying her tone made them less likely to vote for her. Independents especially were turned off, dropping from 38 percent in support of her to just 26 percent.

"Once that line was crossed, the tone changed, and it turned off independents," he says. "Tone matters when it comes to independent voters."

Patrick, who is black, served as a civil rights lawyer in the Clinton administration. Healey berated him over his advocacy on behalf of a convicted rapist, Benjamin LaGuer. Patrick initially said his support was limited to writing a letter "maybe 15 years ago" to a parole board, but it later came out he had donated money for a DNA test, which eventually tied Mr. LaGuer to the crime.

The Healey campaign carried the controversy too far, Paleologos says. Campaign volunteers in prison-style orange jumpsuits picketed the homes of Patrick and his campaign manager – an action Healey later chastised. Stories surfaced in the media of a 1993 rape conviction against one of Patrick's relatives. The Healey camp vigorously denied being the source. Then Healey launched a controversial TV ad that showed a white woman walking alone in a dark parking garage and cut to Patrick describing LaGuer as "eloquent."

"What you get is that age-old, ancient stereotype in this nation of black men wanting to harm white women in a sexual way," says the Rev. Jeffrey Brown, an African-American pastor at the Union Baptist Church in Cambridge, Mass., who says he was a Healey supporter in the past. "I don't know of a black man that I've talked to who did not feel uncomfortable watching that commercial."

Voters might have given Healey more leeway had she stayed positive longer, says William Mayer, a political scientist at Northeastern University in Boston. There also is an unspoken norm, he adds, that the candidate is fair game but that his or her relatives are not. He cites the flak John Kerry took for mentioning Vice President Dick Cheney's daughter and her homosexuality.

"The LaGuer issue itself is perfectly reasonable," Mr. Mayer says. "But I think you've got to tread lightly with it ... [and] she rather significantly overplayed her hand."

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