In the America viewed through the lens of a presidential campaign commercial, coal miners hear that their jobs are "in danger," voters are warned that "China is stealing American ideas," and the middle class, it's been said time and again, is "falling further behind." President Barack Obama has failed to "stop cheaters" while Republican challenger Mitt Romney simply won't "level with us about his tax plan" — or, for that matter, his own taxes. And, let us not forget: Big Bird may well be an endangered species.
Need a shower to cleanse away the residue of negativity coating Election 2012? You're not alone.
This campaign season is awash in the stuff — meaning so, too, is the commonwealth. Blame technology for the endless candidate-bashing e-mails, or YouTube for at-your-fingertips access to advertisements typically seen in only a handful of states, or the 24/7 media environment. Blame, even, the Supreme Court for its 2010 decision that loosened campaign finance restrictions, giving rise to the super PACs responsible for so many of the contentious ads of today.
And blame the campaigns themselves, whose strategists recognize "going negative" as an approach that, while distasteful to voters, can and does work.
"The fact of the matter is negative ads ... are more effective than positive ads. They're more likely to be remembered. They're more likely to get attention through the news media and therefore get repetition," says Shanto Iyengar, who directs the Political Communication Lab at Stanford University and co-authored the book, "Going Negative," a study of the effects of negative advertising on the electorate.
Voters, too, must accept some blame for the unpleasantness. After all, what exchanges are your friends — or you — engaging in on Facebook and Internet comment boards these days? We Americans like to think of ourselves as positive, productive, forward-thinking and looking. And yet we are not only susceptible to this ugliness, we oftentimes help to spread it.
Negativity, says Iyengar, gets voters' "juices flowing. You've heard Republicans saying, 'I wish Romney would do more of this,' because it tends to energize them. That's what they want. They want some red meat out there. In the final analysis everyone complains, but that doesn't mean that they don't listen."
Nor does it mean that this thing that can feel so alienating isn't, in some ways, actually good for a democracy. Just ask John Geer, a political scientist at Vanderbilt University whose own book on negative campaigning offers a defense of the tactic.
"I have a positive campaign for negative campaigning," he likes to quip, and it goes something like this:
— Negative advertisements and statements tend to be more substantive than positive ones.
— Negative advertisements and statements help to highlight differences between candidates.
— Negative advertisements and statements can help engage the public because, well, conflict can do that.
"A positive ad tells you that the candidate favors educated children, more jobs and a clean environment. Wow," says Geer, with more than a hint of sarcasm, "we've learned that somebody favors more jobs and a stronger economy.
"If you ask the American public: Do you want to know about whether the other side will raise taxes or whether a candidate flip-flops or whether a candidate has enough experience — all the stuff that makes up most negative ads — they say, 'Yeah. We want to know that information.' But if you say: Do you want more negative ads? They say no."
Emmett Buell, another expert in all-things-antagonistic in politics, agrees that the tit-for-tat tactics can "contribute invaluably to the American electorate process." He notes: "Once in a while we get candidates who are exaggerators. They need to be found out. If candidates were restricted from criticizing each other ... there'd be no challenge to that."
In the sheer quantity of negative advertising and amount of dollars being spent, this year may mark the birth of an unprecedented era of negative campaigning, according to political scientists and campaign watchers. Contributing to the atmosphere is our extended campaign cycle of today, in which the barbs start flying long before the post-convention, fall campaign.
The standard formula of old — in which a candidate sought to first introduce himself to voters with positive messages before taking on, or down, his opponent — has also become a thing of the past. Says Iyengar: "Today you go negative from Day 1."
But are modern-day presidential contests — and, in particular, this super PAC-dominated race of 2012 — actually nastier? Not necessarily.
Sure, this year has brought us the so-called "Understands" ad, paid for by a pro-Obama super PAC, in which a man talks about losing his health insurance, and his wife's subsequent death from cancer, in connection with Romney's Bain Capital closing the steel plant where he worked. "I do not think Mitt Romney realizes what he's done to anyone," says the former steel worker, Joe Soptic, "and furthermore I do not think Mitt Romney is concerned."
On the other side, there's the much-analyzed pro-Romney ad that accuses Obama of "gutting welfare reform" by stripping the work requirement from the nation's welfare law. After independent fact-checkers found the premise to be false, a Romney pollster countered that the campaign would not be "dictated by fact-checkers."
Beyond the airwaves, smears show up in stump speeches by the candidates, their running mates or surrogates. Think: Vice President Joe Biden warning that Romney and Republicans would put Americans "back in chains" in order to curb regulations on big banks. Or Romney referring to Obama's presidency as "angry and desperate."
Nevertheless, a lot of this pales in comparison with some of the negative tactics of campaigns past, says Buell, who studied almost five decades' worth of campaign statements to pen the book, "Attack Politics: Negativity in Presidential Campaigns Since 1960."
In the 13 presidential races from 1960 to 2008, Buell's research team concluded, the most negative was the 1988 contest between then-Vice President George H.W. Bush and Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, featuring the infamous "Willie Horton" commercial about a murder convict who committed rape and assault during a weekend furlough program that Dukakis had at one time supported. Bush also referenced the program in campaign appearances.
Also up there: The 1964 race between Lyndon B. Johnson and Barry Goldwater, with its jarring "Daisy Girl" ad. Probably the most famous of all campaign commercials, the ad juxtaposed a little girl plucking the petals off of a flower with a countdown to a nuclear explosion in an attempt to characterize Goldwater as an extremist who couldn't be trusted with America's national security. It aired only once as a paid advertisement, but received far more attention in subsequent news reports.
That doesn't mean campaigns have become more hostile because of the advent of television and, thus, the TV ad, Buell says.
Consider the 1864 race in the midst of the Civil War, in which George McClellan derided President Abraham Lincoln as an "idiot" and a "baboon." Or the 1884 contest between Grover Cleveland (chided by his opponents over allegations that he'd fathered a son out-of-wedlock with the mantra, "Ma, Ma, Where's My Pa? Gone to the White House, Ha, Ha, Ha.") and James G. Blaine (accused of using political influence for favors with the slogan: "Blaine, Blaine, James G. Blaine. The continental liar from the state of Maine.") Or the 1928 campaign featuring Herbert Hoover and Al Smith, who as the first Catholic to run for president was targeted by the Ku Klux Klan and others with seething propaganda.
Geer, for one, doesn't happen to find this year's campaign all that negative at all. Most of the advertisements he's analyzed are "very matter-of-fact: He's going to raise your taxes and not create jobs; he doesn't have the experience to do this or that.
"Thomas Jefferson was attacked as the Anti-Christ in 1800. Andrew Jackson's mother was attacked as being a prostitute. And the country survived and even prospered," he says. "I think we'll weather these storms. I'm not even sure they are storms. It may be just a light rain shower at best or maybe even a little bit of sunshine."
Of course try telling that to American voters, especially those in the swing states seeing more than their fair share of this "sunshine." Listen to four who have grown so annoyed by the negativity in campaign 2012 they've each written (at least) one letter to the editor or newspaper column about the subject.
Their worries extend beyond Election Day, as they wonder what lasting effects the doom and gloom of yet another campaign season might have on an already divided America.
"I'm not an online kind of guy, but you post a couple of things and it spreads like wildfire," says Mark Cann, 64, a retired businessman and Romney supporter who lives just outside of Cincinnati. "It's so easy now to spread negative thoughts or inaccuracies or innuendoes ... that has a lot to do with driving people's thoughts and behaviors and actions.
"I think it's sort of bad for society. But ... that's just the way we are nowadays."
Charles Lawson, 72, a retired contractor who is leaning toward Obama, is fed up not only with what he sees on TV but with what he hears in the many robocalls that come to his home in Stagecoach, Nev. "Basically it's totally negative. There's nothing on those calls I get that says what they're going to do and how they're going to do it. It's all: Obama did this, or Obama did that, or Obama didn't do this or didn't do that. I talk to a lot of people, and they're disgusted."
Pam Porter, 57, resides in Valley Center in the non-swing, solidly Republican state of Kansas. But even she was inspired to pen a letter to The Wichita Eagle decrying the unsavory tactics that she sees at all levels — from the race for the White House to local city council elections.
"Candidates, special interest groups and the media seem to be trying to divide not only parties but the country as well. Then after the election is over, the winner doesn't understand why we all can't get along or why so few voted," wrote Porter, a Romney backer. In an interview, Porter added that if the candidates would just talk more substance and less trash, "I wouldn't feel like I'm picking the lesser of two evils. I don't really feel like either one has done that."
And then there's the take of George Corneliussen in Montgomery, Ohio. The 62-year-old piano tuner, leaning toward Obama, finds the negativity in this year's campaign not only unpalatable, but downright insulting. "They must have such little faith in the American public understanding what they're saying that they don't even attempt to take an educated route toward winning an election. They go directly to the lowest-common denominator.
"The person who is going to get my vote," he says, "is the person who can show me that they respect Americans in general."
The good news is not one of these voters was so turned off that they actually won't vote. Another half-glass-full way of looking at it: They'll get that chance in only a matter of weeks and then they can, at least until the next election, turn on their TVs without feeling filthy.
Pauline Arrillaga, a Phoenix-based national writer for The Associated Press, can be reached at features(at)ap.org.