Presidential-Election Negative Ads 2008: “The Least Successful Ever”

21 10 2008

Negative advertising in an election year is always expected. Some in the media think it’s only been happening in recent years, but as far back as Lincoln and Jefferson, name-calling and rumors were spread each election year among the presidential hopefuls. Lincoln was accused of being a son of a slave. Federalists cautioned people not to vote for Jefferson unless they wanted incent taught in the schools.

Grover Cleveland, elected twice, had to get past a major scandal of his day – fathering a child out of wedlock. But political scientists are saying that 2008’s presidential-election ads “could be the most negative since the dawn of the television era,” according to an October 16 article in The Wall Street Journal. On the flip side, the same political scientists are saying that “they may also be the least successful negative ads ever.”

McCain is running more negative ads than Obama, and it’s not doing him much good. Obama is still ahead in a majority of polls going into the second half of October.

Rule #1 of negative campaigning: it must be about an issue already worrying voters. McCain and Obama are bringing up past associations, like Obama’s connection to William Ayers and McCain’s 1980s savings-and-loan scandal. Voters don’t care about what happened in the past – that’s not going to affect them in any way depending on who gets elected President. What people care about are ongoing issues today that might affect them in the near future.

Negative Ads Aren’t All That Bad
Negative ads can be good in a way, according to political scientists. Negative ads are usually about the issues, at least more so than positive ads. Attack ads are also more “likely to contain more information, back up their claims with evidence and delve into details,” according to The Wall Street Journal.

Negativity Not Fought Breeds More Negativity
If negative ads by one candidate aren’t challenged by the other candidate’s negative ads, that doesn’t stop the negativity. The candidate that starts the negative ads will continue to escalate and put out more attack ads. So, both candidates end up mudslinging, just to keep their own campaigns afloat. “There’s no penalty for deception. If anything, there are short-term rewards,” says Bookings Institution scholar Darrell West.

According to The Wall Street Journal, “almost all of McCain’s ads and one-third of the Obama ads were negative.”

Obviously, even though people say they don’t like negative ads and negative news, that is what sells. That’s what people pay attention to. Newspapers wouldn’t put devastating news on the front page if that wasn’t what the people wanted. Voters this year are especially riled up for change with the economy, the Iraq war, medical insurance paying less and people losing their jobs. 

Even if this year’s negative ads are the “least successful,” that doesn’t mean they aren’t successful at all. Think about it: which election ads come to mind when you think all the ones you’ve seen so far? I bet it’s a negative one.

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