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Negative Ads

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

We are at the point in the presidential election cycle when the campaigns – and their allies – begin to run negative ads.

Everyone hates negative ads. Candidate after candidate vows he or she will “never go negative.”


Supporters – especially donors – vow to leave the campaign if negative ads are even discussed, much less produced and put on TV.

Yet … yet … negative ads are a part of almost every campaign.

Mentor and friend Ed Rollins was a pretty fair Golden Gloves boxer when he was young. He has approached campaigns like he would a fight: You have to be prepared to throw a punch, take a punch, and throw a counter-punch. If you didn’t have the stomach for that, become a CPA, not a candidate for public office.

One of the first consultants I worked for was named Paul Newman. True.

Paul warned candidates that there would probably come a time when he would recommend the campaign – as he put it – “turn mother’s picture to the wall” and flay the skin of the opponent.

Ron Paul is running negative ads against Newt Gingrich in Iowa. It appears to have had the desired effect because a poll released yesterday showed Newt’s lead (at least in that particular poll) down to one percentage point over Paul: 22 % - 21% with Romney in third at 16 percent.

Why do campaigns run negative ads? Because they work.

Why do they work? Because humans are hard-wired to listen to, and believe, gossip.

I suspect that during the Neanderthal era Ogg ran into Flic and told him that he heard Betzy from over at the next cave was spending some quality time with the chieftain’s son.


Flic, with no other information, spread the word about Betzy throughout the clan, and before you know it there was a shot-club wedding.

Somewhat more recently there was an outfit named NCPAC – the National Conservative Political Action Committee. In the 1980 election cycle the folks at NCPAC realized that the law in effect at the time (established in the wake of Watergate) put limits on how much could be spent on behalf of a candidate, but there was no legal limit on how much could be spent against a candidate.

NCPAC ran ads against incumbent Democratic Senators in states from coast-to-coast. Like Ogg and Flic, the citizens of those states, having no other information, believed the bad news about their previously beloved Senators.

In 1980 NCPAC, along with Ronald Reagan, helped sweep Republicans into control of the U.S. Senate.

Negative ads are nothing more than highly distilled gossip.

The facts might be the facts, but the way they are presented makes all the difference.

When I was a young reporter at WMOA Radio in Marietta, Ohio 45750 I covered Municipal Court as part of my regular beat.

When I heard the prosecution present the facts in, say, a DUI case, I would think to myself, “That guy shouldn’t be charged with drunk driving. He should have been charge with crimes against humanity!”

Then, when I heard the defense – using the same facts – present its case I thought, “How could the prosecutors possibly have arrested this saint of a man? He should be awarded the Nobel Prize for Good.”


In a negative ad, you only hear one side of the story. If there is enough money behind that ad, you hear that one side so many times you begin to believe it. By the time the candidate being attacked answers, it is often too late; the narrative has taken hold and the response sounds weak.

The effect of a negative ad can be to move a previous supporter into the “undecided” column. Or, it can actually change a voter’s mind from voting for Candidate A to voting for Candidate B.

I know we talk about this every election, but it bears repeating. When we get to within weeks of an election (or caucus) how funny, creative, pretty, or well-produced an ad might be doesn’t matter.

The only thing that matters is: Did it move votes?

Negative ads have proven themselves to move votes more easily than positive ads.

Fasten your seatbelts. With all of the new SuperPACs operating out of the legal control of the campaigns, you are likely to see some really unpleasant advertisements.

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