Is anybody fit for office any more?
A Florida congressman casts his foe as a religious extremist, “Taliban Dan.” A challenger in West Virginia stresses a lawmaker’s Arab-American ancestry as shadowy and foreign. Other candidates are nothing but liars, misers, cheaters, even traitors, judging by the 30-second TV attacks.
Deep-pocketed independent political groups are making the 2010 election homestretch the most scathing in years. In the frantic final days before the voting, a blitz of negative ads is hitting the air in more than two dozen tight congressional races.
The ads warn that candidates who say they’re on your side actually care more about Arabs or illegal immigrants – take your pick – than about you. And the other guy seeking your vote? Why, he’ll simply make stuff up to get it.
This is personal. But often anonymous.
In the past month, candidates, the political parties and outside groups have purchased millions of dollars in commercial time. Of the resulting ads, 60 percent have assailed candidates for their stands on issues or for their character, according to the Campaign Media Analysis Group, which monitors such advertising.
Groups operating separately from the parties or the candidates are particularly focused on delivering tough messages. Eighty-nine percent of their ads attack political opponents, according to CMAG.
“Everyone has a reason to do negative ads,” said Evan Tracey, the group’s president. “Challengers do it to get competitive, incumbents do it when they’re worried about losing to challengers. And groups, if they’re running positive spots they’re wasting their money.”
And it’s getting tougher out there.
An ad airing in Washington state and paid for by a Democratic-leaning group links Republican Senate candidate Dino Rossi to financial scandals. Another, in New Mexico portrays Rep. Harry Teague, a Democrat, as a disagreeable, money-pinching boss. In Colorado, Republican Senate candidate Ken Buck, a prosecutor, is accused of being soft on an illegal gun dealer.
And so it goes.
Some ads are indirect. One in New Mexico almost requires program notes to follow the cast of characters.
GOP gubernatorial candidate Susana Martinez, a county district attorney, ran one ad targeting a teacher who appeared in an earlier National Education Association ad critical of her candidacy. Turns out, Martinez’s office had prosecuted the teacher’s husband, now serving a 23-year sentence on a kidnapping charge. Martinez put those facts into her own ad. The NEA ad “looks different now, doesn’t it,” Martinez says into the camera.
In Louisiana, Democratic Rep. Charlie Melancon, eager to boost his flagging effort to unseat Republican Sen. David Vitter, aired a rare two-minute ad, filmed in the style of a docudrama, that recounts the discovery of Vitter’s phone number in the logs of a Washington, D.C., escort service.
With a galvanized Republican electorate, a Democratic administration seeking to invigorate its base, incumbents concerned about survival and challengers energized to kick them out, there’s a reason it’s so disagreeable out there: Tough ads work. They fire up partisans, provide more information than feel-good ads, and while they might turn off some independent voters they also help undecideds make up their minds.
“Folks like to complain about negativity,” said Erika Fowler, an assistant professor of government and director of Wesleyan University’s Media Project. “That said, we do tend to see movement in places where there is negativity.”
It’s a time-honored practice with a vicious history. Allies of John Quincy Adams printed handbills accusing Andrew Jackson of executing six militiamen in 1813 without cause. Jackson’s wife was accused of being an adulteress. Grover Cleveland was mocked as the father of a child out of wedlock with the slogan, “Ma, Ma, where’s my Pa?” Supporters had the last laugh when he won: “Gone to the White House. Ha, ha, ha.”
These days, most negative ads go after candidates for past votes or statements on relevant issues. But a broad range of contests are for open seats without incumbents, leading campaigns to look for foibles, missteps or worse to exploit.
Challengers and the party that is out of power are more likely to launch negative ads. Democrats did that in 2006, and captured control of the House and Senate. This year, Republicans hope to return the favor and are casting Democrats as big government spenders who have been unable to fix the economy.
But Democrats, facing a tough political environment, are fighting back. They portray Republicans as advocates of privatizing Social Security, they blame Republicans for sending jobs overseas and they have taken past statements by tea party candidates to portray them as far out of the mainstream.
“Here in the end game, voters are seeing a lot of advertising, they’re seeing a lot of free press, and they get to compare the two candidates and that’s good for us,” said Democratic strategist Jim Jordan, who is running his own negative ads against Republicans.
All this leads to a relentless tit for tat.
Consider the Senate race in Nevada. It pits the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, against Sharron Angle, a Republican former state legislator backed by the tea party. Reid has been persistently casting Angle’s views as extreme.
Angle has fought back vigorously. She recently took to the air with an ad casting Reid as a supporter of “illegal aliens” with black and white images of young Latino-looking men lurking near fences or staring menacingly at the camera.
The narrator intones: “What does Harry Reid have against you?”
In another effort with an ethnic subtext, a group called the West Virginia Conservative Foundation is airing an ad that emphasizes Democratic Rep. Nick Rahall’s Arab-American ancestry and his support of President Barack Obama. The ad plays a clip of Rahall, whose family is Lebanese, discussing his efforts to enlist fellow Arab-Americans to support Obama as a presidential candidate. As the clip fades, the ad tells viewers to call Rahall and “tell him to stand with West Virginians.”
Can the ads go too far? How far is too far?
Democratic Rep. Alan Grayson of Florida sought to cast his GOP opponent, Daniel Webster, as a religious extremist and labeled him “Taliban Dan” in an ad.
But it turned out that Grayson used quotes selectively, altering the meaning of Webster’s words in the ad. It shows a clip of Webster addressing a religious group. In the edited clip, Webster says: “Wives, submit yourself to your own husband. … She should submit to me. That’s in the Bible.”
The unedited clip, however, reveals a different meaning. “I have (Bible) verses for my wife. Don’t pick the ones that say she should submit to me. That’s in the Bible, but pick the ones that you’re supposed to do. So, instead, that you love your wife.”
Grayson defended the ad on CNN, but said it was no longer on the air.
“This is the gotcha campaign,” said CMAG’s Tracey. “Everybody is just out there with their video rolling at all times trying to find that little snippet to make part of their ad. No wonder these candidates are ducking.”
To be sure, ads aren’t meant to be fair. Democrats use clips of Republicans calling for changes in Social Security but edit out caveats that say no change should affect current recipients. Likewise, Republicans accuse Democrats of cutting Medicare but don’t mention that the cuts are over 10 years and represent a small fraction of Medicare spending.
“Context,” Tracey said, “is the job of the other guy.”