All polite political society, regardless of party, deplores the negative ads that soon proliferated in the television age, as do voters in poll after poll. (Americans vocally abhor porn, too, even as they ravenously consume it.) “Negative advertising is the crack cocaine of politics” is the much-repeated maxim of the former Democratic senator Tom Daschle. In the aftermath of Booker’s admonishment of Obama, Ed Rendell, the pugnacious former Democratic governor of Pennsylvania, claimed with a straight face that “if you’re in this business, none of us like negative ads.” Attack ads do “little to further beneficial debate and healthy political dialogue,” according to McCain, whose 2008 campaign outdid the Democrats in its percentage of negative ads, if not in quantity. (Remember “Celebrity,” his spot likening Obama to Paris Hilton and Britney Spears?) Even Lee Atwater, the George H.W. Bush political Svengali who inspired the racist Willie Horton ad, among other attacks swamping Michael Dukakis in 1988, wrote a 1991 deathbed mea culpa apologizing for the “naked cruelty” of that campaign. No less a patron saint of the liberal media Establishment than Ben Bradlee would in retrospect condemn LBJ’s “Daisy” spot as “a fucking outrage.”
A good defender of attack ads is hard to find—aside from those political consultants who gorge financially on the media buys that put those ads on the air. One exception is John Geer, a political-science professor at Vanderbilt whose In Defense of Negativity, published in 2006, may be the last, and possibly the only, serious word on the subject. In defiance of the whither-democracy laments of such fellow academic authorities as Kathleen Hall Jamieson (the author of Dirty Politics) and Thomas Patterson (The Vanishing Voter), Geer chastises all the doomsayers for being “so worried about ‘civility’ in campaigns.” He argues not just that “democracy can survive negativity” but that “without negativity, no nation can credibly think of itself as democratic.” He points out, as others have, that negative ads tend to be more accurate than positive ads—a low bar, to be sure—and contain more news that voters can use. Mike Murphy, the irrepressible GOP political operative and wit, agrees. “We have a joke in the business,” he told Geer, that “the only difference between negative and positive ads is that negative ads have facts in them.”
Crunching the data, Geer discovers that the 1988 Dukakis-Bush campaign, widely regarded as the nadir of modern American political mudslinging, was not notably more negative than those before or after, and that, contrary to public perception and Atwater’s apology, Dukakis ran more negative ads than Bush did. “The advertising in 1988, despite all the claims, did not usher in a new era of American politics,” Geer writes. “It was the news media’s coverage that brought about a new era.” By his Nexis reckoning, there was a fourfold increase in the number of articles on campaign negativity in the Times and Washington Post from 1984 (8) to 1988 (32). It was in 1988 that a national magazine (Newsweek) first ran a cover story on negative political ads, and it was also that year that a candidate (Dukakis) first ran an attack ad attacking attack ads. Dukakis’s innovation remains in vogue today. Hardly had Obama’s Bain ad made its debut last month when Karl Rove’s super-PAC, American Crossroads, ran an attack ad attacking Obama for making attack ads (complete with the useful, repurposed sound bites from Booker and Schieffer)—no mean stunt coming from the man who benefited from the Swift Boating of Kerry only eight years ago.
Geer’s research also indicates that attack ads are in every way bipartisan: Democrats and Republicans have deployed them in roughly equal measure (as have election winners and losers). They are always accompanied by positive spots. Even the most famous hit jobs—Willie Horton, Dukakis in a tank, “Daisy”—did not determine the outcome of elections so much as cement their drift. Bush 41 didn’t start running his negative ads until September 1988, which was after polling found him overtaking Dukakis. LBJ was well ahead of Goldwater from the get-go but went for broke because he wanted a mandate by landslide (which he got) to complete the New Deal (which, under the Great Society rubric, he largely did).
Unlike those notorious examples, most attack ads are soon forgotten. Some fizzle, some backfire. In our churning media sphere, where swing states become ceaseless free-fire zones of negativity for weeks and months on end, they can drown each other out. So far, the 2012 election cycle has produced none for the ages. The most provocative may have been Gingrich’s 28-minute “King of Bain” attack on Romney, startling not so much because of its quality or its message but because no one expected a conservative Republican to slam another conservative Republican from the left. Its modest impact was to help propel Newt to a temporary comeback in the South Carolina primary. A more inspired Romney attack ad would reverse Newt’s surge soon after in Florida: Unadorned by voice-over or fancy sound effects or graphics, it simply reran 25 seconds of Tom Brokaw’s 1997 evening-news account of Gingrich’s ethics violations. Brokaw and NBC lawyers demanded it be pulled, which only increased its viral impact.