Watts: Going Negative

Aug 16, 2016

Negative TV ads have become common in political advertising.

Candidates “go negative” because these ads work. And they work because they’re memorable.

Research has found we’re more likely to remember the harsh attack than the glowing positive testimonial. These ads cut through the clutter, they stand out.

And they also work by driving votes away from your opponent - by raising doubts.

Back in 1988 I experienced first-hand the power of negative ads as a young staffer in the national press office of the Dukakis for President Campaign. In July Dukakis was 15 points ahead. And then came the ads. The so-called “revolving door” ad with prisoners escaping as ominous music played, and the Boston Harbor ad with dead fish floating near sewer pipes. Photos of convicted murderer Willie Horton became one of the defining images of the campaign. Over and over, these ads hammered on Dukakis as a leader that would make the country more dangerous.

But these ads don’t work in Vermont – or do they?

James Douglas in four successful runs for Governor used negative ads – or what politicians like to call contrast ads - to great effect. In 2002, Douglas labeled Doug Racine as a flip-flopper. In 2004, Douglas used footage from a Peter Clavelle press conference to illustrate the candidate’s confusion on his health care plan. In 2006, Scudder Parker was labeled “Mr. Property Tax” for votes he took as a state senator. And in 2008, Gaye Symington’s personal finances were the subject of a negative ad. While the Democrats in most of those races responded with their own negative ads, it was too little too late.

We may see less of these ads in Vermont because of fewer contested campaigns, not because they don’t work. And we will likely see more going forward, because the Citizens United decision allows third parties to spend unlimited amounts. These surrogates for various campaigns can do the dirty work that candidates want to avoid. Look for attack ads funded by third parties in Vermont’s fall elections.

Unfortunately, the power of negative ads may also impact making sensible public policy. Changing your mind based on new evidence may be wise policy-making but a liability in a campaign. Nobody wants to be branded a flip flopper. Voting to increase a tax -- which might make good public policy - writes itself as a line of attack.

So as you watch the ads this fall think about what they say about the state of the campaign, who is ahead and who is behind. And, of course, do some thoughtful information seeking to fill out the story the ad is presenting, and know it will all be over in early November.