Why Attack Ads Matter

I loathe political attack ads. They don’t contribute to the constructive debate and are often such a conglomeration of out-of-context snippets (I simply can’t call them facts) that they could easily be called slander. Still, they do serve a very important service in an otherwise undecided election: how a candidate deals with having an opponent in their face.

Most of us like to think that our specific elected officials will stand up for OUR interests. That they won’t back down in the face of a more blustery opponent. In the Oval Office, we’ve seen where it’s important.  When we look back at the Cuban Missile Crisis, the staring match between Kennedy and Khrushchev was very instructive as to the kind of thoughtful strength is needed when civility breaks down at the international level (something to consider now that Czar Putin is re-Sovietizing Russia).

Over more than 200 years of American politics, we’ve pretty much demonstrated that attacking your opponent is much more effective than promoting your own agenda. Don’t believe me? The election of 1800 (yes, 1800) between Adams and Jefferson (yes, that Adams and that Jefferson) is still considered to be one of the most rancorous and scathing political battles in presidential history. The situation since then has improved only slightly.

Thing is, attack ads do two things: they let us see how a candidate deals with pressure, and they help polarize the electorate by hardening opinion about who the voters DON’T want in office.

Here’s an very famous ad from the 1964 election that was used by Lyndon Johnson’s campaign to effectively convince voters that opponent Barry Goldwater would be more likely to lead the country into nuclear war than otherwise:

Some have argued that George H.W. Bush’s Willy Horton ad took down the Michael Dukakis campaign:

Though this was probably much more damaging:

Honestly, if you’re opponent is going to voluntarily look goofy and hand the video to you on a silver platter, you simply have to use it.

The defamation of an opponent is a tricky thing in the eyes of the people. While it may indeed cast an  opponent in a poor light, HOW they are attacked might cause an even greater backlash. For example, the 1993 election in Canada, from Wikipedia:

On October 14, the second ad premiered. It featured still pictures of Chrétien’s face interspersed with comments by actors posing as regular Canadians. The first asked “Is this a Prime Minister?” and others questioned his record. The final, and most prominent, line was “I would be very embarrassed if he became Prime Minister of Canada.” While the ad’s creators had meant for the lines to refer to Chrétien’s policies and ethics, the intercutting with images of his face focusing on his facial deformity were interpreted by many as an attack on Chrétien’s appearance.

This example also demonstrates that how a candidate reacts to such an attack is almost as important as the ad itself (again from Wikipedia):

Even more beneficial for the Liberals than the anti-Tory backlash was Chrétien’s reaction to the commercials. One Tory described them as allowing Chrétien to “make the speech he had been waiting his entire career to deliver.” Speaking in Nova Scotia, Chrétien stated that “God gave me a physical defect, I’ve accepted that since I was a kid.” He compared the Tories to the teasing children of his youth: “When I was a kid people were laughing at me. But I accepted that because God gave me other qualities and I’m grateful.” The speech moved some in the audience to tears. Even cut into sound bites on the evening news, it was hugely effective. Chrétien’s personal approval ratings shot up, nullifying one of his last remaining shortcomings compared to Kim Campbell.

Now that we enter into the stretch run in the U.S. 2008 presidential endurance run, it will be interesting to see what the candidates have learned and what they are willing to do…if not themselves, but from their supporters. Many believe the “swift boat” smear ads against John Kerry in the 2004 all but scuttled his election chances because he didn’t deal with them strongly enough, thus allowing doubt to creep in the mind of the electorate. By the same token, Barack Obama has made some within his own party rather nervous because he’s been tending to “high-road” the ad landscape rather than engage with the attack ads that John McCain’s camp started putting out almost as soon as the Democratic side of the race was all but decided.

Once we finish with the two weeks of sniping that we laughingly refer to as political conventions, it will be very interesting to see how the two campaigns go after each other. So far, McCain has gained ground because his opponent has been unwilling to engage. Will the tide turn now that Obama has a bulldog as a running mate, or will he simply Kerry this election?

Me? I would love to have one side or the other air an ad where a cute little girl, pulling petals from a daisy is asked what she thinks of one of the candidates. I’d love for her to answer: “He’s a poopy head.”  Tell me you wouldn’t love to see that as well.

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