Political Assaults Help Uncover Pols’ Flaws For The Voters
If there is one Darwinian adaptation that the American people have made to modern times, it is the ability to sift through a wide variety of claims and to determine for themselves which are specious and which are accurate. We realize that the days during which we could trust any one media outlet or candidate to give us the full story are long over -- if they ever existed in the first place. We realize that truth is a synthesis of the various claims made by the left and the right, the Democrats and Republicans, and the incumbents and the challengers.
Voters see negative advertising as another form of information. They so distrust politicians that they want to see their opponents tear them down so they can get at the truth. In fact, voter attitudes toward politicians are akin to their opinions of criminal defendants (they could be forgiven for confusing the two). Just as juries want a prosecutor who tears the defendant apart and punches holes in his alibi, so they want a political candidate to run ads exposing his opponent.
Of course, negative ads do not always work. Sometimes they backfire big time. So when a candidate runs a negative ad, he takes his life, career, and reputation in his hands. If the ad turns out not to be true and an alert opponent jumps on him and runs a rebuttal ad exposing its inaccuracies, he can lose the election in a heartbeat.
Voters have a skilled baloney detector embedded in their consciousness. They know that politicians who have proclaimed their own honesty have ended up in prison, while others who say "read my lips, no new taxes" have broken their solemn vows and jacked up rates anyway. So they watch all television with suspicion. To succeed, negative ads must work overtime to get in under the detector.
Negative ads must emphasize fairness and accuracy even at the price of having less overt impact. The best negative ad I ever ran was for Jeff Bingaman in his 1982 race to unseat astronaut turned Sen. Harrison "Jack" Schmitt. The ad went as follows: "Do you think we should drill for oil in national parks and wilderness areas? The candidates for Senate disagree. Jack Schmitt says yes, we need the oil. Jeff Bingaman says no, we need to protect our national heritage more. Two good men run for Senate, but they disagree on oil drilling in parks and wilderness areas. So, on Election Day, vote for the o ne who agrees with you." The ad appeared so evenhanded -- and was so accurate -- that it overcame voter distrust and led to an upset victory for Bingaman.