© 2023 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Commentary: The newness has worn off negative campaign ads, but they are unlikely to end

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 29, 2008 - As Election Day 2008 came to a close, one thing Republicans and Democrats could rejoice in was an end to the relentless stream of negative political ads. As candidates at the national and state level vied for power, these TV and/or Internet spots illustrated Hobbes' dictum that life is nasty and brutish – if not, in this case, short.

According to University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato, political consultants use negative advertising because they feel it works. And negativity in American campaigns is as old as competition for office. But the images that came through the television have gotten more abrasive over the past three decades. The poster boy for such ads was Willie Horton. In 1988, Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis was hurt by an ad tying him to Horton, who robbed a couple and raped the woman while out on furlough from a Massachusetts prison.

In 2000, George W. Bush and his political expert, Karl Rove, borrowed from Bush Sr. and his political guru, Lee Atwater. Ads during the South Carolina primary accused John McCain of having an illegitimate black daughter (with pictures of his daughter, who was adopted from Bangladesh) and also highlighted his wife's problems with prescription drugs. The attacks were personally painful to McCain as well as contributing to his loss in that state.

But the pain was not sufficient to keep McCain from using tough measures in the 2008 primaries and general election. With running-mate Sarah Palin (who solidified his relations with the conservative base) at the forefront, his negative campaigning ramped up. The strategy was to portray Barack Obama as too liberal, unready to lead and an associate of dangerous radicals.

In “The Rise of Political Consultants,” Sabato noted that negative campaigning is effective when it capitalizes on moods, beliefs or prejudices about an opponent already present in the electorate. Obama's relative newness and his status as the first presidential nominee of color seemingly would make him vulnerable to attack ads. He was later referred to as socialist or communist in ads and speeches, charges that were more potent in earlier decades.

Obama responded with many positive ads as well as negative commercials that continually cited McCain's close ties to George W. Bush. The Obama campaign also used a questionable ad that claimed McCain opposed stem cell research, but it ran only on radio. In general, McCain's attacks were more far-reaching and theoretical than based in reality.

It is interesting that McCain's negative ads did not prove effective. But the conditions – an unpopular sitting president and an unraveling economy – supported calls for change. The negative ad barrage did not affect that.

Candidates for statewide office also used negative ads.

  • In the governor's race, Democrat Jay Nixon portrayed his Republican opponent, Kenny Hulsof, as part of the pork-barrel politics of the nation's capital.
  • Incumbent Republican Lieutenant Gov. Peter Kinder was accused of financial chicanery.
  • Attorney general candidates Chris Koster and Mike Gibbons accused each other of being soft on crime and having ties to questionable folks.
  • Clint Zweiful, Democratic nominee for treasurer, linked his opponent to the unpopular governor, Matt Blunt.

Since Missouri eliminated straight-ticket voting and because many knew little about the candidates down the ticket, some of the negatives may have hurt.
Negative campaigning will be with us on all levels for a long time – at least as long as consultants and candidates feel that it works. What was learned this year is that negative ads are not enough to trump the reality of a staggering economy and a very unpopular sitting president.

It would have been very difficult for McCain to win under any circumstances. But, perhaps, the populace is beginning to turn off all those political commercials the way they turn off ones for consumer products. The novelty is no longer there.

Lana Stein is a professor emerita of political science at the University of Missouri at St. Louis. 

Lana Stein is emeritus professor of political science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. She is the author of several books and journal articles about urban politics, political behavior and bureaucracy.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.