It's that time again. With the mud flying in the presidential race, pundits, journalists and political observers of all stripes are denouncing the campaign's new, strikingly negative tone.
Listening to them, you'd think that the very fabric of our democracy were being ripped apart every time a candidate aired a tough attack ad, threw an elbow, or issued a sharply worded statement. It's no surprise that the public has joined the chorus to denounce negativity in politics.
But as someone who has spent years studying negative advertising, I say hold the hand-wringing over attack ads. They're actually pretty good for the country. Before you throw down the paper in disgust, let me offer, as Sen. John McCain likes to say, some "straight talk."
Most people assume that negativity in politics is a bad thing. But they're wrong. Attack ads aren't just inevitable; they're actually helpful to voters. Negative ads, on average, are actually more informative than positive ones.
I've examined all the ads aired by presidential candidates on television from 1960 to 2004, and my analysis has led me to some startling conclusions:
First, negative ads are more likely than positive ads to be about the issues. Second, negative ads are more likely to be specific when talking about those issues. Third, negative ads are more likely to contain facts. And finally, negative ads are more likely to be about the important issues of the day.
How can something so widely reviled actually turn out to be good for us? It's like finding out that Big Macs are nutritious.
We rarely consider what's necessary for a negative ad to work. Sen. Barack Obama can't just say that a McCain presidency would be bad for the economy. Instead, he must make an argument, even a 30-second one, showing how Senator McCain's policies will supposedly lead to an economic downturn. That forces Senator Obama to be much more specific than he is when he's out on the stump.
Moreover, attacks need evidence to work. Could Obama attack McCain as unprepared to serve as commander-in-chief? Not in this lifetime. McCain has the necessary experience, and claiming otherwise would backfire. Similarly, McCain can't question Obama's intelligence because the Democrat is clearly smart. When ads lack the evidence to support their claims, they tend to work against the candidate who aired them. Just consider the flak McCain took recently after running his "sex education" ad. It simply wasn't credible to claim that Obama supported sex education for 6-year-olds.
Part of the reason people don't like negative ads is that learning about someone's weaknesses isn't enjoyable. Nonetheless, it's important.
In 2004, Sen. John Kerry described himself as someone who supported tax cuts. The Bush campaign had to point out the many times Kerry had supported tax increases. Is that hitting below the belt? Hardly. The public needed to know Kerry's full record on taxes. Kerry never would have provided it – but the negative ads did.
The bottom line: Candidates are great at telling us all about their strengths, but they just won't tell us about their weaknesses. So that task falls to their opponents. We need this negative information to make an informed choice.
I'll push my own Straight Talk Express even further: Any democracy demands negativity. Our nation rests on the idea that ordinary citizens can replace one set of leaders with another. But to make that change, we need those out of power to explain what's wrong with those in charge. The beauty of our system is the peaceful transfer of power, and that absolutely requires negativity.
We need to continually evaluate, judge, and criticize our ideas, and that means we need negativity. US elections are pitched battles for control of the federal government. The stakes are huge, and tempers flare. But the candidate left standing will be battle-tested for the fiery trial that awaits him when he takes that oath of office.