Callaghan: Despite all the bluster, negative campaign ads ineffective

By Peter Callaghan, Columbian Syndicated Columnist

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photoPeter Callaghan covers the state Legislature for The News Tribune in Tacoma. Blog: thenewstribune.com/politics; or Twitter: @CallaghanPeter. Reach him at peter.callaghan@thenewstribune.com.

What's the difference between a negative campaign ad and a "contrast" ad? It's negative if it attacks your side and a contrast ad if it's aimed at the other guys.

Oversimplified? Maybe a little. But too many voters define negative ads as the dirty, vicious attacks on their candidate, the kind of campaigning that should be condemned, even banned. Contrast ads are seen as a necessary act of holding the other candidate accountable for who they are, what they say, what they believe and who they may have been associated with no matter how peripherally.

We'll get more fodder than we might want – some on TV but also in the mailbox, over the phone, by email or via social media. And while we might feel assaulted, just think of our fellow citizens in the shrinking number of presidential battleground states. The Washington Post reported recently that 115,000 ads had already run in Ohio compared with 43,000 over the same period in 2008. Super PACs get most of the blame, but neither candidate is accepting federal funding and its cap on spending while Republican John McCain accepted the money four years ago.

Here in the presidential backwaters, I guess we can put up with that woman talking about Rob McKenna as though he's someone she met in a bar. ("You know how you meet someone? He seems nice enough. You think, 'Well, maybe.' Then you actually check him out online, and he isn't at all who he says he is. Republican Rob McKenna is one of those guys.") And because it can't possibly go on forever, I can tolerate hearing five old white guys -- clearly the demographic that'll put the Republicans over the top -- complain about Jay Inslee before telling the kids to get off their lawn.

I sat on a panel recently sponsored by Humanities Washington called "Dirty Business: A History of Negative Campaigning." A college professor, TVW president Greg Lane and I didn't manage to cover the history or even provide many answers, but we at least posed most of the questions.

How much of what is dumped into the "negative advertising" file folder really meets the definition? Shouldn't it be limited to untruths and half-truths that play to base emotions? Isn't there a need for calling out candidates, especially incumbents, for how they've acted and voted in the past? What's over the line? Do negative ads even work? If not, why are they so central to most American political campaigns? Is there a remedy to counter untruths, half-truths and misrepresentations?

The 1964 "Daisy" ad that began the program is legendary – a little girl counting petals she plucks off a daisy before her voice is replaced by the countdown of a rocket launch. The screen is then filled with the mushroom cloud and roar of a nuclear detonation. Barry Goldwater, the Republican presidential nominee, didn't even need to be named for the ad's creators to communicate that he wasn't to be trusted with the nation's nuclear arsenal.

The assumption behind negative campaigning is that it must work. Research is mixed, though. University of Washington professor David Domke said some researchers have found it can change voter behavior in limited circumstances, such as when the candidate delivering or benefiting from the negative message has favorable standing and the target does not. Other times it can drive down turnout.

Jeff Smith, the now-retired executive director of the Washington State Democratic Party, said he never saw a negative campaign that worked. It persists, he said, because consultants make money that way and party organizations feel pressure to look like they are doing something helpful.

What to do about it all? Nothing, probably. Laws against lying have been found unconstitutional. Fact-checkers in independent groups and the news media fight an uphill battle and are ignored by the campaigns themselves and their diehards. Which leaves voters as the enforcer. And since much research questions the effectiveness of negative campaigns, it might be that voters are already doing a pretty good job.