August 22, 2004

Going Negative: When It Works

Swiftvets via Associated Press, top; Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press
With veterans attacking John Kerry, top, and Michael Moore's biting "Fahrenheit 9/11," the negative makes an impression.

THIS was supposed to be the positive campaign. Late last fall, Democrats and Republicans alike predicted that a new campaign rule requiring candidates to appear in their own advertisements and take credit for them would discourage them from making negative ads.

Yet it's not even Labor Day and President Bush has spent the majority of the more than $100 million he has spent on television advertisements attacking his Democratic opponent, Senator John Kerry. Mr. Kerry and the other Democratic primary contenders seemed to spend the fall and early winter in a contest to see who could jibe Mr. Bush the most.

A host of outside liberal groups have spent more than $60 million bashing Mr. Bush on his march to war, his economic stewardship and his health care policies. And in the latest volley, a group calling itself Swift Boat Veterans for Truth is pledging to spend $1.1 million by the end of the month on advertisements that scorch Mr. Kerry's service in Vietnam and his statements about the war after he returned home.

Every campaign cycle, in fact, seems to begin with the promise of an uplifting, mutually respectful debate of the issues, only to devolve into character attacks and distortions, and for good reason: negative ads work. Voters may say they want candidates to stay positive, but in truth, they respond more readily, more viscerally, to attack ads.

"People like a fight," said Roger Stone, a Republican strategist. "Put up an ad about the intricacies of the federal budget and people will turn the channel. Put up an ad like the Swift boat one, that creates an indelible image in the voter's mind."

Those hoping to see fewer negative advertisements this political year may have picked up positive signs in snowy Iowa last winter, when Representative Richard A. Gephardt and former Gov. Howard Dean of Vermont did not do as well as expected in the caucuses after swapping attack advertisements. Mr. Kerry and Senator John Edwards did not run television advertisements against fellow Democrats and did better than expected.

But seasoned political professionals warned against taking that to mean negative ads would not work in the general election. When there is a crowded field of viable candidates, as in the primary, voters will often punish not only the one on the receiving end of a negative ad, but also the candidate who dealt it. With other viable options, voters are apt to take their support elsewhere.

In the general election, when two candidates go negative, there's no viable alternative.

Indeed, the dire predictions that Mr. Bush would pay a heavy price for "going negative" with advertisements attacking Mr. Kerry for being "wrong on taxes, wrong on defense" in March did not come to pass. Kenneth M. Goldstein, an associate professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin, said that while Mr. Bush might have turned off some undecided voters with his attack ads, he also managed to stall Mr. Kerry's momentum after clinching the Democratic nomination. (Mr. Kerry's campaign disputes that notion.)

"It's a very strong and simple empirical fact," Mr. Goldstein said. "You can tinker with campaign finance laws all you want, but when you have competitive elections you get lots of advertising - and you get negative advertising."

Political consultants cite a strikingly consistent pattern when it comes to darker, more confrontational commercials. "Focus groups will tell you they hate negative ads and love positive ads," said Steve McMahon, a Democratic strategist. "But call them back four days later and the only thing they can remember are the negative ones."

And studies have shown that not only are people more likely to remember attacks, it also takes fewer airings to remember them.

"There appears to be something hard-wired into humans that gives special attention to negative information," said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. "I think it's evolutionary biology. It was the wariness of our ancestors that made them more likely to see the predator and hence to prepare. The one who was cautious about strange new food probably didn't eat it, they sat back and watched other people die. There's a reason to be hesitant about that which is vaguely menacing."

Negative ads also pay dividends beyond what campaigns actually spend on them by getting more attention in the news media. The debate about the Swift boat ad, which accused Mr. Kerry of lying to get his war medals, has played out for weeks on talk radio and cable news, meaning it was played over and over at no cost to the group running it.

A new study by Ms. Jamieson's group found that nearly half of 2,209 people surveyed nationally said they had seen or heard about the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth ad, though it has only been shown in three states at modest levels. And a new CBS News poll shows that Mr. Kerry's support among veterans has slipped from 46 percent to 37 percent since Democrats' convention.

Studies and focus groups have shown that people like ads that are based on policy, factually accurate and that forecast how a candidate would govern, giving them a reason to vote for a candidate - as well as a reason to vote against the opponent.

"Unless people think it's untruthful, you're not going to get a backlash out of it," Ms. Jamieson said. "If people think the source is credible, that the source is speaking out of a deep conviction, you don't get a sense of attack."

The infamous Willie Horton ad, for example, which portrayed Michael Dukakis as weak on crime in 1988, was based in fact and policy - namely, that, while Mr. Dukakis was governor of Massachusetts, felons were let out of prison on weekend furloughs.

And ads from a group calling itself Republicans for Clean Air that slammed Senator John McCain's environmental record and lauded that of Gov. George W. Bush before the crucial New York, California and Ohio Republican primaries in 2000 became the scourge of political watchdog groups. But that does not bother Rob Allyn, whose firm produced them - wholly independently of Mr. Bush's campaign, he adds.

"All I can say is that the day the independent advocacy effort was launched the media was reporting Governor Bush was 8 points behind in New York," he said. "And he won."

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