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Presidential Race

Putting A Positive Spin On Negative Campaigning

Originally published on Sun June 24, 2012 5:46 am

The general presidential election is still months away, but President Obama and presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney are already hammering each other with attack ads.

Obama's most recent ads criticize Romney's time as a so-called "corporate raider," while Romney has released several ads seizing upon the president's statement that the "private sector is doing fine."

Negative campaigning is hardly new, but at the rate this year's campaign is going some say this could be one of the most negative races in recent history.

"I think it's very likely to be the most negative race since the advent of television," says John Geer, a political scientist at Vanderbilt University.

Geer tells weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz that there are several factors that could influence that negativity, including huge superPAC donations and the increasing polarization of the political parties. A third factor, he says, is the candidates themselves.

"Both candidates [have] some flaws," he says, "and those flaws will provide grist for the respective attack mills."

The Positivity Of Negativity

Poll after poll shows Americans don't like negative campaigning, but Geer says, people do want to know is whether a candidate has raised taxes or flip-flopped on an issue. He says one study found negative ads — by a margin of 60 percent — tend to be more accurate and truthful than positive ones.

"They want to know the downsides of candidates," Geer says. "We spend a lot of time worrying about the exaggeration or the misrepresentation on the negative side, but the same thing [happens] on the positive side."

Geer, who wrote the book In Defense of Negativity, says democracy requires negativity. When one group is trying to take control of the seat of power held by another group, criticism, and therefore negativity, is how they communicate to the public that those in power need to be replaced, he says.

"There is no democratic country in the world that doesn't have negativity in it," he says, "because it's ... a foundational aspect of the system."

Recent research from the Wesleyan Media Project shows that this presidential campaign has already been very negative, and Geer says it will be interesting to see how it plays out as the November election approaches.

"Obama does not have a lot to run on ... and Romney has some aspects of his record that he has to explain," he says.

One thing that has changed over the last decade or so is the news media's fascination with negative ads, Geer says. The power of some negative ads comes not from the ad itself but from the news coverage that follows.

Rise Of The Negative TV Spot

One of the TV ads that began that media fascination, Geer says, is the now infamous "Willie Horton ad." The ad ran during the 1988 presidential election between Republican George H.W. Bush and Democrat Michael Dukakis, a race often considered one of the nastiest elections in the modern era.

The ad, released by a Bush political action committee, features a Massachusetts prisoner named Willie Horton who committed a brutal assault and rape while on a weekend prison furlough. Dukakis was governor of Massachusetts at the time. He had defended against earlier attack ads, but Dukakis says this one was so negative and racially charged that he and his team decided the best response was to ignore it.

That decision might have cost him the presidency.

"I thought people were tired of a lot of the polarization that was taking place ... and basically just said, 'We're not going to respond to those attacks,' " Dukakis tells Raz. "It was a terrible mistake."

Dukakis, who now teaches at Northeastern University and UCLA, says that by the time he realized his mistake it was too late to repair all of the damage it had done. He says he found out the hard way that negative campaigning, if left unanswered, can really work.

"You can't do what I did ... [because] if you do that, you're going to be hurt and you're going to be hurt badly," he says.

Now that outside groups can spend unlimited amounts of money on ads, the 2012 election could make 1988 look pretty tame. Dukakis says there's no doubt this campaign is going to get very nasty, but he says there's no reason for it.

"I'm not suggesting we wouldn't have some negative campaigning without Citizens United," he says, "but I think that it was a terrible thing for the American political system."

Negative Ads Here To Stay

No matter the year, negative campaigns are part of America's DNA. During the 1828 presidential race between Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams, Jackson was accused of cock-fighting and cannibalism; his wife was called a prostitute.

"We seem to think ... everything is getting worse, but if people had any historical memory they'd see that this is relatively mild," says New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich.

Rich, who wrote about negative ads this week, says that 2012 is not a departure from history. Romney ran negative ads early and often in the heated Republican primary and now in the general election. He tells Raz that the Obama campaign has shown it can do the same, citing ads attacking Romney's time at Bain Capital.

"The Obama campaign is schooled in this and presumably will act upon their expertise, as will the Romney campaign," he says.

Rich agrees that conversations wrought by negative campaigning are ultimately bad for American political discourse, but he says we can't pretend that they're not happening. The campaigns are going to have to participate in those conversations to sell their respective candidates.

The larger point, Rich says, is that the country will survive it all no matter how negative it gets.

"We can always feel that everything is going bad at any given moment," he says, "but the truth is we have to have a little bit of a longer view and realize that this is what waxes and wanes in American politics."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

We're going to head to State College, Pennsylvania, in just few moments to get the latest on the Jerry Sandusky conviction, but first to our cover story today.

And to get started, we called up John Geer. He teaches political science at Vanderbilt University. And he wrote a book a few years ago called "In Defense of Negativity." And that book explains why John Geer believes negative campaigning actually works. So we asked him what he thinks about the coming Obama-Romney showdown.

JOHN GEER: Well, I think it's very likely to be the most negative race at least since the advent of television. You have all the money, especially with the superPACs, and that certainly is one ingredient. The second is you have the polarization of the political parties. The gap has grown further over the last four years. And finally, you have both candidates with some flaws, and those flaws will provide grist for the respective attack mills.

RAZ: And it's already beginning.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL ADS)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Running for governor, Mitt Romney campaigned as a job creator.

MITT ROMNEY: I know how jobs are created.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: But as a corporate raider, he shipped jobs to China and Mexico.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: But after a record 40 straight months of unemployment, over 8 percent, President Obama insists...

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The private sector's doing fine.

RAZ: Now one of the things John Geer and most people who've studied presidential campaigns more or less agree on is this: that the nastiest, bloodiest most negative election in the modern era happened in 1988, George H.W. Bush versus Michael Dukakis.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL ADS)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: As a candidate, Michael Dukakis called Boston Harbor an open sewer.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: But Bush's administration cut funds to clean up Boston Harbor.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Michael Dukakis has opposed virtually every defense system we developed.

RAZ: And Dukakis initially tried to attack the attack ads.

MICHAEL DUKAKIS: Never seen anything like it in 25 years of public life, George Bush's negative TV ads.

RAZ: And by late September 1988, the Bush team ran a now-famous ad about a prisoner named Willie Horton who committed a terrible crime while on a weekend prison furlough.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: Horton fled, kidnapped a young couple, stabbing the man and repeatedly raping his girlfriend. Weekend prison passes. Dukakis on crime.

RAZ: This spot was so blistering, it was so negative and so racially charged that Dukakis says he and his team decided the best response was to ignore it. And that decision may have cost him the presidency.

DUKAKIS: And if you ask me now why I made that decision, I'm not sure I can tell you. I mean, I thought people were tired of a lot of the polarization that was taking place, even under the Reagan administration, and just basically said, hey, we're not going to respond to those attacks. And it was a terrible mistake, because by the time I woke up to the fact that a lot of damage had been done, it was almost too late to repair it.

RAZ: Do you think negative campaigning actually works then?

DUKAKIS: There's no question it works. And unanswered, it really works. But you can't do what I did, which is to simply say, hey, I'm not going to pay any attention to it. I'm not going to respond in any way to the attack campaign. If you do that, you're going to be hurt and you're going to be hurt badly.

RAZ: And this year, it could make 1988 look pretty tame with the two parties more polarized than ever and with outside groups able to spend unlimited amounts of money on ads, thanks to the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United. Could this election be the most negative ever?

DUKAKIS: Well, I don't think there's any question it's going to be a difficult, nasty, very, very rough campaign. And there's no reason for it. I'm not suggesting that we wouldn't have some negative campaigning in this campaign without Citizens United, but I think that was a terrible thing for the American political system.

RAZ: That's former Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis. He now teaches at Northeastern and UCLA.

But no matter what year - 1988, 2008, even 1908 - negative campaigns have been the rule rather than the exception.

FRANK RICH: Compare this year to something like the John Quincy Adams-Andrew Jackson campaign of the 1820s...

RAZ: This is Frank Rich. He's a writer at large for New York magazine.

RICH: ...when attack ads accused Jackson of cockfighting, cannibalism, accused his mother of being a prostitute, his wife being a bigamist. We seem to think the world is always, you know, going to hell in a handbasket and everything's getting worse, but actually - people had an historical memory, they'd see that this is relatively mild, what we have now.

RAZ: Frank Rich believes that 2012 will not be a departure from history. And in his latest column for the magazine, he argues that victory for either candidate will be achieved by going negative.

RICH: I think the Obama campaign is already proving that it's ready to go negative early and often. The first official ad of the general campaign, the Bain ad, attacking Romney...

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: Bain Capital walked away with a lot of money that they made off of this plant. We view Mitt Romney as a job destroyer.

RICH: What was fascinating to me is that there was nothing really new about that ad. It wasn't a particularly startling ad. 1994, in the campaign with Teddy Kennedy for the Senate, Ted Kennedy ran very similar ads about Bain.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Taking away their dignity...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Basically cut our throats.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #7: I'd like for him to show me where these 10,000 jobs that he's created are.

RICH: And by the way, Kennedy won by 17 points in a landslide in that Senate race in Massachusetts. And also, there was nothing really in Obama's anti-Bain, anti-Romney ad that was as vicious or as factually inaccurate as what Gingrich did when he tried to bring Romney down over Bain in the primaries.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #8: Mitt Romney became CEO of Bain Capital the day the company was formed. His mission: to reap massive rewards for himself and his investors.

RICH: This is the American culture. If the goal is victory, I'm afraid we can all poo-poo it, we can all complain about it and wish that all of civic discourse was the way it is on, say, NPR, but this is just a part of it. And I would point out to those who have complained about Obama's negative ads already, saying, you know, whatever happened to hope and change, Obama ran a lot of negative ads in 2008. I'm sure many people remember particularly the one, McCain couldn't remember the number of houses he owned.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #9: Well, it's seven. Seven houses. And here's one house America can't afford to let John McCain move into.

RICH: So the Obama campaign is schooled in this. And presumably, they're going to act upon their expertise as will the Romney campaign.

RAZ: Frank, I know you talk about how America can't be, you know, like a PBS roundtable, that's it's a lot more hardnosed than that. But I wonder whether you're wrong about that and whether there is a danger in emphasizing things like Romney's so-called secretive faith or Obama's - the attempts to suggest he was raised in Kenya. I mean, those are arguably bad for America if those conversations become louder and more amplified, don't you think?

RICH: Yes. Of course, those conversations are bad for America, but we can't pretend they're not happening. And therefore, the two campaigns are going to have to participate in them to sell their respective candidates. On the other hand, the country has survived it all. You know, we can always feel that everything's going bad at any given moment, but the truth is we have to take a little bit of a longer view and realize this is part of what waxes and wanes in American politics.

RAZ: New York magazine's Frank Rich. The political scientist John Geer, who we heard from earlier, he thinks negative campaigning isn't just effective, but that it's actually good for American democracy.

GEER: Well, I think it is a good thing. It's at least underappreciated. Democracy requires negativity. Because when you have two parties that are competing - one's in power, one's out of power - the group out of power has to criticize those in power because they have to tell the American public why they should be replaced, and that requires criticism.

So from the broad, small-d democratic point of view, there is no democratic country in the world that doesn't have negativity in it because it's kind of a foundational aspect of such a system.

RAZ: John, poll after poll shows that most Americans do not like negative ads. They don't like those kinds of campaigns. So why do politicians keep mounting them?

GEER: Well, first of all, if you ask the public - and I've been doing some recent research on this. If you ask the public do they like negative ads, they say no. But if you ask the public do you want to know if one of the candidates flip-flopped, if one of the candidates has raised taxes, do you want to know these kinds of things, they answer yes. That is, they want to know the downsides of candidates.

We spend a lot of time worrying about the exaggeration or the misrepresentation on the negative side, but the same thing goes on on the positive side. I mean, Mitt Romney is claiming that he balanced four budgets in a row as governor of Massachusetts. That is correct. But it's also true that if you or I were governor, we, too, would have balanced the budget because it's mandated by the state constitution. So we forget to fill in the other side of the equation, but that's natural to campaigns.

RAZ: I mean, it may be true technically, but often taken out of context, right? So if you're a member of Congress and you vote for a bill with tons and tons of amendments attached to it and one of those amendments might be, you know, funding for a teahouse in northern Alaska, you could be accused of waste and fraud and abuse and all those things.

GEER: Well, that's right. It could be taken out of context. But don't forget that a negative ad is just one part of the conversation. So let's say I air a negative ad against you and I make a claim about this frivolous spending on your part, you can respond to that. And I think that's all to the good, because if they become president, they're going to wake up every morning to a new round of attacks and they have to be ready to sit behind the big desk if that's what they want.

RAZ: Looking at this election now as it's starting to shape up, do you have any sense of how negative it has been so far and where it's headed?

GEER: Well, there are some data from the Wesleyan Media Project that suggests it's already been very, very negative and we're not even into July yet. And it's probably going to get more and more attack-oriented partly because, you know, Obama does not have a lot to run on, to be honest, and Romney has some, you know, aspects of his record that he has to explain.

It'd be really fascinating to see how it all plays out because the superPACs, yes, they're separate from the candidates and they have all these legal separations, but it doesn't have the same feel as like the 527 groups, which sponsored the Swift Boat ad in 2004, which were much more separate from the candidates.

The interesting thing about that ad is that that ad aired in 1 percent of the country, yet by end of September of 2004, 80 percent approximately of the American public had heard of the term "Swift boat." What that tells you is that the power of that ad came not from the airing but from the news media's coverage of it. So to me, the single biggest change in this country is not the rise of negative ads, it's the news media's fascination with negative ads.

It really began in '88 with the Bush-Dukakis campaign, has continued forward, and actually, I think, changed the incentives of consultants because now they know that if they air a negative ad, it might get extra attention.

RAZ: That's John Geer. He teaches at Vanderbilt University. And despite the fact that polls consistently show voters don't like negative campaigning, well, John Geer did a study that found negative ads, by a margin of 60 percent, tend to be more accurate and truthful than positive ones. Brace yourself. It's going to be a long, bloody campaign season. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.