Why Negative Ads Backfire

Attack ads conflate real criticisms with absurd, over the top ones.


To listen to the barrage of political ads in the last week of the campaign, one would think that Satan is running for office--many offices, in fact, across the country.

Liars, incompetents, lunatics, worshippers of false Gods--these, according to the industry that creates political ads, are our choices as Americans go to the polls next Tuesday. And while some of the criticisms lodged in the ads are based on some truth, the heavy-handedness of the messages may be more effective in turning voters away from the polls entirely instead of toward another candidate.

[Check out our editorial cartoons on the 2010 campaigns.]

There’s Kentucky Democratic Senate candidate Jack Conway, who has an ad accusing GOP nominee Rand Paul of forcing a woman into declaring allegiance to the “Aqua Buddha.” Is there anyone who doesn’t recognize that episode as a college prank, and not an effort to advance a bizarre new religion? An ad against moderate (well, at least onetime moderate) New Hampshire Republican congressional candidate Charlie Bass makes it sound as though Bass was singularly responsible for congressional pay increases and the expanding national debt. But congressional pay hikes are automatic unless Congress separately votes (as it did this past May) to stop them. And raising the debt level is a distasteful task for many lawmakers, but a necessary one to keep the government running.

[Read more about the deficit and national debt.]

So-called character issues are a legitimate part of campaigns, but the flood of negative campaigning this season has given the impression that all infractions are equal. Did GOP Illinois Senate candidate Mark Kirk and Connecticut Democratic Senate nominee Richard Blumenthal exaggerate their respective records? Yes, it seems so. But both are respected, veteran public officials, and the exaggerations seem more baffling than troubling, since both have real records on which to fall back.

One of the more disturbing questions about character involves GOP House candidate Jeff Perry, who is running to replace retiring Rep. Bill Delahunt in Massachusetts. Perry, while a police officer, was on the scene in the early 1990s when another officer under his command, Scott Flanagan, illegally strip-searched and sexually assaulted a 14-year-old girl.

[See where Delahunt gets his campaign money.]

Perry claims he did not hear the girl, despite a police investigatory report stating that Perry was just 15 feet away from Flanagan and the girl. The victim issued a statement last week saying it was not possible for Perry to have avoided hearing her screams and cries--a powerful statement that seemed to mark a turning point in Perry’s campaign against Democrat Bill Keating. There are other matters as well, including Perry’s misstated application to the Massachusetts bar and his inclusion of a diploma-mill college on his list of academic credentials.

These are all serious matters raising serious questions of truthfulness and honor. But Perry opponents arguably came down so hard that they undermine their own message. A radio ad--since taken down--has a male voice discussing how Flanagan put his hand in the 14-year-old girl’s “panties.” The use of a Victoria’s Secret catalogue word to describe the girls’ underwear--and the use of a male voice to narrate the ad--made a legitimate criticism sound like kiddie porn.

A recent TV ad also hits Perry hard, slamming him for his “pattern of deceit.” The reference to the illegal strip searches (Flanagan later did the same to a 16-year-old girl) are accompanied by a photo of a sad-looking girl who looks no more than 11. Was it necessary to make the crime look even worse than it was by using an image of an apparently much younger girl? Isn’t it enough that Perry cannot explain how he allegedly did not know a fellow officer was assaulting a middle school-aged girl?

“If you don’t like the lies out of Washington, don’t send liars to Congress,” the ad concludes. A blunt message--but perhaps so blunt and heavy-handed that it may turn voters away from the Democratic Party group that ran the ad, instead of the target of the ad.

  • Check out our editorial cartoons on the 2010 campaigns.
  • Follow the money in Congress.
  • See a slide show of 11 hot races.