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.

Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP
President Barack Obama speaks in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington earlier this month. He opened a new advertising assault on challenger Mitt Romney's record as a businessman, casting the likely Republican nominee as a greedy entrepreneur who bought up companies and wiped out jobs.

And you thought it was bad already.

There are still five months to go before Election Day, and the campaigns of Mitt Romney and Barack Obama are just beginning to lock horns for real, but negative attack ads are already exploding over the airwaves and the Internet.

Take Mr. Obama’s recent attack on Mr. Romney’s work at private equity firm Bain Capital or Romney’s recent broadside against Obama’s economic policies. Both candidates have record-breaking war chests already and continue raising funds at a dizzying pace in anticipation of what may end up being a scorched earth campaign.

“We’re now entering the World War III of attack ads. We are dropping atomic and hydrogen bombs,” says Charles Dunn, a political scientist at Regent University in Virginia Beach, Va. “We were just firing shotguns before.”

Add to all this the growing deluge of advertising resulting from the 2010 US Supreme Court decision Citizens United, which opened the fire hose for private money pouring into so-called "super PACs." So long as the super PACs do not coordinate directly with the campaign, there is no limit on how much super PACs can spend on ads supporting or denigrating one candidate or another, as witnessed in the messy Republican presidential primary race.

Those hoping this year for a kinder, nobler national debate to choose the next occupant of the White House likely will be sorely disappointed.

But veteran political watchers and analysts readily point out that negative political advertising may actually be essential to the process of deciding whom to vote for.

“There’s no need to wring your hands about the attacks ads, we’ve always had them, since the beginning of the republic. We have just to acknowledge them and the role they play,” Mr. Dunn says. “They bring things out about an opponent’s record in ways that a positive ad might not. It is what it is. Let’s not worry about it. Let’s just go on.”

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.

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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