- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 10, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Paris Hilton? Britney Spears? “Fight the Smears?” Really?

So much for an “honorable campaign” as the political attack ads of 2008 begin to bombard the public airwaves.

The “I’m hot” debate last week did not delve into the presidential candidates’ energy plans as much as it focused on who descended deeper into the muck — “the one who is promising change” or the “wrinkly, white hair guy,” as Miss Hilton characterized the candidates in response to Republican Sen. John McCain’s attack ad criticizing Democratic Sen. Barack Obama’s “celebrity.”

After all, did the socialite’s cheeky video garner the presumptive GOP nominee even greater points in the polls? Slightly, it seems, at least for the moment, based on the Daily Double at Gallup. Should Mr. Obama have “hit back harder” to widen the gap as even some Democrats suggested? Perhaps.

Still, the larger question is how this mudslinging with expensive negative campaign advertisements will affect the election outcome and at what cost, not only to the candidates but also to the electorate they aim to sway? Replaceable dollars? Irreplaceable values?

Some folks contend they do not cotton to the negative tone campaigns take and that those messages, sophomoric or sinister, distract from the national debate the country needs to engage in every four years.

Jim Allen, host of “The Signs of The Times” (WPGC-AM, 1590), says “the majority of the listeners to my show who called on this topic were particularly surprised that John McCain compared Barack Obama to Paris Hilton and Britney Spears in an ad.

“No one put Paris or Britney down, per se. The most frequent observation was surprise that the ad resorted to trying to minimize Obama as a person. … Some said the ad insulted their intelligence. But, if the intent of the ad was to stop people from talking about Obama’s recent world tour, then, in political terms, it worked,” Mr. Allen added.

The Olympic flame-throwing had to happen sooner or later with less than 100 days until the election. One candidate, then the other, then back-and-forth, as the presidential campaign goes up in smoke as each fire starter and his surrogates claim the other lit the match.

The charges and counter-charges are being lobbed so fast and loose that the Obama camp installed a “Fight the Smears” link on his Web site, while most media outlets now employ campaign “fact checkers” to analyze ads. The usual suspects on the pundits’ roundtables continually bemoan or belittle negative campaigns ads, but it appears that few of them have ever heard the Bible verse about “casting the first stone.”

Television viewers, who we only wish would vote more for political contenders than for “American Idol,” say they are turned off by negative ads but researchers and pollsters will beg to differ.

Negative political advertising is as old as holding public elections in this country. Thomas Jefferson was attacked as the “Antichrist.” Abraham Lincoln was called “a horrid looking wretch” unfit to lead, according to scholars John G. Geer of Vanderbilt University and Ken Goldstein of the University of Wisconsin, who co-authored an opinion piece, “The positive effect of negative ads,” which first appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

The two academics, who have been tracking presidential campaign data, concluded negative political ads energize voters even though they are unable to determine which candidate benefits the most from them. One study reported by the April Journal of Consumer Research, for example, has shown that young voters would either be more supportive in defense of their candidate or be swayed away from their original candidate after watching negatives ads.

“Negativity is essential to democratic politics and ultimately yields a more engaged and better-informed public,” they wrote.

“Whether we like it or not, attack ads and the debate they trigger offer an invaluable way” to answer questions that voters have about the candidates, the scholars suggest. Further, “negative ads are more likely to focus on issues, are more specific and contain many more facts than positive ads,” which engages the public, which in turn, makes them more likely to vote.

Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson raised the specter of nuclear war evaporating a little girl in his “Daisy” ad against Republican Barry Goldwater. In more recent times all you have to do is mention “Willie Horton,” “Swift boat” or the “red phone at 3 a.m.” and most Americans remember the meaning even if they can’t name the presidential candidates to whom they applied.

Michael Fauntroy, George Mason University public policy professor, said “for all the talk about voter’s claiming not to like negative ads, they work and they move voters in one direction or another.”

Mr. Obama made early claims to run a “different kind of campaign,” one that was supposed to rise above the fray, Mr. Fauntroy said.

“They planted that seed early and that’s not what they wanted to do, so the voters are more likely to give him a pass, … unless the ads get particularly egregious,” he said, adding that the same applies to Mr. McCain, who has also done well with independents.

However, “ultimately this campaign will look like every other campaign we’ve seen in recent years,” Mr. Fauntroy said. If the race is close, the negative ads can sway a few independent and undecided voters in critical states such as Missouri, Ohio and Florida.

“Nobody should be surprised that these ads are beginning to hit the airwaves,” Mr. Fauntroy said, because “the reality is that when you’re running a campaign, the last thing you want to do is lose because you were afraid to turn the knife.”

Still, the American public really deserves better than Paris and Britney and “Fight the Smears.”

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