Those Negative Ads Are a Positive Thing

By John G. Geer
Sunday, October 12, 2008

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 handwringing over attack ads. They're actually pretty good for the country.

Before you throw down the paper in disgust at my heresy, let me offer, as Sen. John McCain likes to say, some "straight talk." For starters, let's not be prudish about this. Really, what did we expect to happen? The polls all show that Sen. Barack Obama has opened up a significant lead over McCain, who is saddled with a sagging economy and a wildly unpopular president. Senior GOP operatives recently told The Washington Post that the McCain campaign would take a newly aggressive tone to try "to change the subject here," as one McCain hand put it. So is it any wonder that McCain is airing mostly negative ads at this point?

And Obama's not innocent, either. While McCain's running mate, Gov. Sarah Palin, blasted the Democratic nominee for his rather thin ties to a seemingly unrepentant member of the Vietnam-era Weather Underground, Obama responded with an ad reminding voters of McCain's role in the "Keating Five" savings-and-loan scandal of the 1980s. Recent data from Nielsen suggest that the campaigns have aired roughly the same number of negative ads. Even Karl Rove, who knows a thing or two about attack ads, has declared that both sides have gone too negative.

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. This claim sounds like sacrilege in light of all the negativity about negativity, but the data are clear. Believe it or not, 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 is this possible? How can something so widely reviled actually turn out to be good for us? It's like finding out that Big Macs are nutritious.

The problem is that we rarely consider what's necessary for a negative ad to work. 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 McCain's policies will supposedly lead to an economic downturn. That forces Obama to be much more specific than he is when he's out on the stump touting his own vague desire to grow the economy.

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-old kids.

Part of the reason people don't like negative ads is that attacks aren't fun; learning about someone's weaknesses isn't enjoyable. Nonetheless, it's important. In 1988, for example, then-vice president George H.W. Bush's campaign was criticized for airing the famous "tank ad," which used footage of a helmet-wearing Michael S. Dukakis driving around in a tank while the narrator listed defense programs that the Massachusetts governor opposed. Sure, the video made Dukakis look like Snoopy, but the ad also raised important themes for voters. With the Cold War raging, the public needed to know about the candidates' views on defense policy. If you listened only to Dukakis's own ads, you would have thought that he was a bigger supporter of defense than Bush. But the record suggested otherwise.

That ad was an important corrective to the overly generous account candidates usually offer about their own records. In 2004, Sen. John F. 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.

Some may say that purely negative campaigns undermine this country and produce nothing of value. Perhaps. But if you want to see some truly "negative" campaigns, forget 2008 or 1988 and go back to the founding of the republic. First, consider the Declaration of Independence -- one of our most hallowed documents. It is also strikingly negative, attacking King George's actions toward the colonies. Or consider the debate over the adoption of the Constitution. Its foes waged a harsh, nasty and sometimes personal campaign against the Federalists and our new founding charter. By one estimate, 90 percent of all the anti-federalists' statements were attacks on the Constitution. The result of all this negativity? The Bill of Rights -- not a bad outcome at all.

Not every attack this season has been a good thing, of course. The number of attack ads seems excessive to me, too. We're usually told that all these negative commercials are aired because they work. But that doesn't hold water. Despite that conventional wisdom, there's no systematic evidence that attacks ads work better than positive ones. We can all point to famous negative ads that seemed to swing an election, but the same can be said of positive ads. Remember Ronald Reagan's beautiful "Morning in America" ads, which laid out the many successes of Reagan's first term? Walter Mondale sure does.

The reason we have so many negative ads in 2008 has less to do with their efficacy or virtue than with the way the media cover campaigns. Today's coverage gives candidates far more incentive to run negative ads than they had 20 or 30 years ago. Consultants know that reporters and bloggers love harsh, negative ads. Journalists relish the battle and revel in the attacks. When was the last time you saw a news story about a positive ad? I recently asked a panel of journalists this question, and only Joe Klein of Time magazine could say that he had recently written about one of Obama's more uplifting ads. The sugary stuff may work with voters, but it doesn't set journalists' and pundits' pulses racing.

Hence this cycle has seen an increase in nasty ads online and lots of negative spots airing in just a few media markets. The campaigns are, in effect, fishing: dropping a lot of lines in the water in hopes of hooking the media. Take all the attention the McCain team's "Celebrity" ad received earlier this year by linking Obama to Paris Hilton and Britney Spears. This ad was clever, and it offered a theme that the media found interesting and relevant: Is Obama ready to lead?

But the best, and most troubling, illustration comes from the 2004 presidential race. We all know the term "Swift Boat," but not because many of us saw the actual ad that ripped Kerry's Vietnam service. The ad didn't get much air time, but the media lavished attention on the controversial spot. I did a systematic search of media coverage from August to November 2004 and found that the term "Swift Boat" got nearly twice as many mentions in major U.S. newspapers as the term "Iraq war."

All this straight talk may be received with, well, some negativity. As a defender of negativity, I can only say: Bring it on. We need to continually evaluate, judge and criticize our ideas, and that means we need negativity. It plays an important role in letting the country decide who's ready to lead. It may not be pretty, but democratic politics rarely are. U.S. 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.

John G. Geer is a professor of political science at Vanderbilt University and the author of "In Defense of Negativity: Attack Ads in Presidential Campaigns."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company