Clever negative advertising works. That is reality.
The tactic meets with media and pundit disapproval and spawns accusations of negativity, but the reality is that a clever negative ad can be devastatingly effective.
The 2008 presidential race is shaping up to be a close battle, and the tighter it is, the more the advertising will be ratcheted up, by both of the campaigns and the myriad independent groups sure to emerge.
Of course, voters publicly condemn negative advertising and suggest they would never be swayed by it. That was my experience in focus groups more than a decade ago, which found negative advertising to backfire. But Republican consultants such as the late Lee Atwater have used these tactics successfully in campaign after campaign. When reality and research differ, it is the research that is wrong.
In 1996, my colleagues and I designed a new kind of research for President Bill Clinton’s reelection bid, in which voters were shown campaign ads in public places like shopping malls. The same voters were then interviewed privately, in an atmosphere where they let their hair down and spoke candidly. Not surprisingly, voters admitted that negative ads sway their ballot box choices.
Some negative ads crystallize voters’ opinions without presenting any new information. That’s what was behind John McCain’s recent ad equating Barack Obama’s celebrity status with that of Paris Hilton — that viewers would associate the Democrat’s leadership with mere celebrity, not substance. Fair or not, as advertising it did its job: It used humor, stuck viewers with memorable images and created a debate, just as Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 “Daisy” ad, Walter Mondale’s “Red Phone” spot 20 years later and Hillary Rodham Clinton’s “3 a.m.” commercial in 2008 did.
The Paris Hilton ad also bore a Republican political trademark — attacking a candidate’s strengths rather than the candidate’s weaknesses. The spot attempted to portray Obama’s leadership for change as something fluffy and useless. Obama did not immediately hit back on the air.
Other types of negative ads use candidates’ own words against them. During Bill Clinton’s 1996 campaign, we used to devastating effect the speeches that Republican nominee Bob Dole and House Speaker Newt Gingrich gave — especially a speech in which Gingrich admitted that his balanced budget plan aimed to cut off Medicare funds so the social insurance program would “wither on the vine.”
So far in the 2008 contest, neither candidate has connected with any ads that explosive. But fresh information about their past views in their own words could shake up the race.
Obama’s commercials so far have been very positive. He has used advertising mostly to amplify his speeches and some of his programs. And he has a Rubicon to cross: He has presented himself as representing a new politics — uplifting, inspiring and not negatively driven — though he has been willing to go after his opponents sharply on the stump.
With Obama up only about three points nationally, we can expect a torrent of negative ads this fall aimed at each candidate’s perceived weaknesses. Clearly, McCain has a conservative record on social issues that could be a real vulnerability with women. His comments on having to learn more about economics are hardly comforting to a country in a financial crisis. And Obama’s obvious target is that the more things change, the more they stay the same — a McCain presidency would be just a third Bush term. Obama, meanwhile, has an experience hurdle to overcome.
Sometimes these ads are unfair — but so, too, are positive ads. In the primaries, John Edwards’ most effective spot claimed he would take away the health care of members of Congress if they didn’t pass his health care bill in 90 days. Never mind that a little thing like the separation of powers makes such a move impossible. When pushed, Edwards admitted as much. But he kept the ad on the air anyway.
Picking a president is not just about the candidates’ strengths but also about how their weaknesses can manifest themselves. Imagine if, in 2000, Al Gore’s advertisements had hit George W. Bush hard over incompetence on foreign affairs and as a trigger-happy cowboy.
This year, you can expect a tough political season and plenty of negative ads. Done fairly, they serve a legitimate role.
Mark J. Penn served as chief adviser to President Bill Clinton in the 1996 presidential election and to Hillary Rodham Clinton through her Senate and presidential races. He is author of the best-selling book “Microtrends: The Small Forces Behind Tomorrow’s Big Changes” (Twelve, 2007).