The Year Of Playing Dirtier: Negative Ads Get Positively Surreal
By Michael Grunwald
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 27, 2006; Page A01
Well, that's what the Republican challenger for his Wisconsin
congressional seat, Paul Nelson, claims in his new ads, the ones with
"XXX" stamped across Mr. Kind's face. It turns out that Mr. Kind --
along with more than 200 of his fellow hedonists in the House --
opposed an unsuccessful effort to stop the National Institutes of
Health from pursuing peer-reviewed sex studies. According to Mr.
Nelson's ads, the Democrat also wants to "let illegal aliens burn the
American flag" and "allow convicted child molesters to enter this
To Mr. Nelson, that doesn't even qualify as negative campaigning.
"Negative campaigning is vicious personal attacks," he said in an
interview. "This isn't personal at all."
By 2006 standards, maybe it isn't.
On the brink of what could be a power-shifting election, it is
kitchen-sink time: Desperate candidates are throwing everything. While
negative campaigning is a tradition in American politics, this year's
version in many races has an eccentric shade, filled with insinuations
of corruption and sexual perversion.
At the same time, the growth of "independent expenditures" by national
parties and other groups has allowed candidates to distance themselves
from distasteful attacks on their opponents, while blogs and YouTube
have provided free distribution networks for eye-catching hatchet jobs.
"When the news is bad, the ads tend to be negative," said Shanto
Iyengar, a Stanford professor who studies political advertising. "And
the more negative the ad, the more likely it is to get free media
coverage. So there's a big incentive to go to the extremes."
The result has been a carnival of ugly, especially on the GOP side,
where operatives are trying to counter what polls show is a hostile
political environment by casting opponents as fatally flawed
characters. The National Republican Campaign Committee is spending
more than 90 percent of its advertising budget on negative ads,
according to GOP operatives, and the rest of the party seems to be
following suit. A few examples of the "character issues" taking center
stage two weeks before Election Day:
In New York, the NRCC ran an ad accusing Democratic House candidate
Michael Arcuri, a district attorney, of using taxpayer dollars for
phone sex. "Hi, sexy," a dancing woman purrs. "You've reached the
live, one-on-one fantasy line." It turns out that one of Mr. Arcuri's
aides had tried to call the state Division of Criminal Justice, which
had a number that was almost identical to a porn line. The misdial
cost taxpayers $1.25.
In Ohio, GOP gubernatorial candidate Kenneth Blackwell, trailing by
more than 20 points in polls, has accused front-running Democratic
Rep. Ted Strickland of protecting a former aide who was convicted in
1994 on a misdemeanor indecency charge. Mr. Blackwell's campaign is
also warning voters through suggestive "push polls" that Mr.
Strickland failed to support a resolution condemning sex between
adults and children; Mr. Strickland, a psychiatrist, objected to a
line suggesting that sexually abused children could not have healthy
relationships when they grew up.
The Republican Party of Wisconsin distributed a mailing linking
Democratic House candidate Steve Kagen to a convicted serial killer
and child rapist. The supposed connection: The "bloodthirsty" attorney
for the killer had also done legal work for Mr. Kagen.
In two dozen congressional districts, a political action committee
supported by a white Indianapolis businessman, Patrick Rooney, is
running ads saying Democrats want to abort black babies. A voice says,
"If you make a little mistake with one of your hos, you'll want to
dispose of that problem tout de suite, no questions asked."
In the week's most controversial ad, the Republican National Committee
slammed Rep. Harold Ford, D-Tenn., for attending a Playboy-sponsored
Super Bowl party. In the ad, a scantily clad white actress winks as
she reminisces about good times with Mr. Ford, who is black. That ad
has been pulled, but the RNC has a new one claiming that Mr. Ford
"wants to give the abortion pill to schoolchildren."
Some Democrats are playing rough, too. House candidate Chris Carney is
running ads slamming the "family values" of Rep. Don Sherwood, R-Pa.,
whose former mistress accused him of choking her. And House candidate
Kirsten Gillibrand has an ad online ridiculing Rep. John Sweeney,
R-N.Y., for attending a late-night fraternity party. "What's a
50-year-old man doing at a frat party anyway?" one young woman asks,
as a faux Sweeney boogies behind her to the Beastie Boys. "Totally
creeping me out!" another responds.
But most harsh Democratic attacks have focused on the policies and
performance of the Republican majority, trying to link Republicans to
Mr. Bush, the unpopular war in Iraq and the scandals involving former
Rep. Mark Foley and former lobbyist Jack Abramoff. That is not
surprising, given that polls show two thirds of the electorate thinks
the country is going in the wrong direction. And studies show that
negative ads can reduce turnout; Democrats hope a constant drumbeat of
scandal, Iraq and "stay the course" will persuade conservatives to
stay home on Nov. 7.
It is harder for Republicans to blame out-of-power Democrats for the
current state of Washington, but they are equally eager to depress
Democratic turnout and fire up their own conservative base. One GOP
strategy has been raising the specter of House Minority Leader Nancy
Pelosi, a San Francisco liberal, becoming speaker; for example, Rep.
John Hostettler, R-Ind., is airing radio ads warning that a Democratic
victory would allow Ms. Pelosi to "put in motion her radical plan to
advance the homosexual agenda." Then again, Mr. Hostettler's opponent,
Democrat Brad Ellsworth, has accused him of promoting the sale of guns
to criminals, "including child rapists."
Some of this year's negative ads are more substantive, reprising a
successful Republican strategy from 2002 and 2004: portraying
Democrats as soft on terrorism. For example, Rep. Nancy Johnson,
R-Conn., has an ad lambasting her opponent for opposing Mr. Bush's
efforts to conduct wiretaps without search warrants. A host of
Democrats have been accused of trying to "cut and run" in Iraq --
including House candidate Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, who lost both
legs in Iraq.
The RNC has raised eyebrows with an ad consisting almost entirely of
al-Qaida videos starring Osama bin Laden and his top deputies. There
is no sound except for a ticking bomb, before the final warning:
"Those are the stakes. Vote November 7th." John Geer, a Vanderbilt
professor who has written a book defending negative political ads,
says he told a well-connected Republican friend in Washington that the
ticking-bomb ploy seemed like a desperation move. The friend e-mailed
back, "John, we're desperate!"
"Look, the electorate is polarized, the stakes are large, and neither
party has much to run on right now," Mr. Geer said. "You can expect to
see some pretty outlandish ads."