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Negative Campaigns Provide a Service, Too

August 27, 2008

In the midst of the Republican and Democratic conventions there’s a lot of talk and denunciation of so-called negative campaigning. Usually the pundits and the voting public focus their comments on television commercials which contrast the positions of the candidates.

Recently one female voter explained in a televised focus group that she forbids her kids to watch negative commercials because "I don’t want my kids seeing two adults criticizing each other." 

This is an extreme take on negative campaigning and some would say she isn’t doing her kids any favors - in life or in understanding politics. On the other side of the coin Democratic and Republican political operatives acknowledge that voters say they don’t like negative spots – but universally agree that they work.

But the misunderstanding is that they are also helpful to voters and provide important narratives that help voters see both sides of an issue. Don't get caught up in political correctness. Remember the one rule of politics: there are no rules.

For example, it’s hard for candidates to admit they voted to raise taxes so it will naturally be pointed out by an opposing candidate. This is what many call going negative. Other issues often need an opposing narrative to provide voters with an alternative way to look or think about issues and positions taken by candidates.

Instead of complaining about negative political commercials voters should embrace them and take the time to analyze their content and make a more thoughtful decision based on the two sets of facts they are presented. Negative television advertising is often presented very creatively which is why it usually penetrates the public consciousness. A few ads have been so clever or simply presented that they have become legendary in political broadcast circles.

Far and away the most famous negative broadcast commercial was the 1964 "Daisy" commercial aired only once during the September 7, 1964, telecast of David and Bathsheba on the NBC Monday Night Movie. But it was so powerful that many say Lyndon Johnson defeated Barry Goldwater that very night.

The commercial showed a little girl picking petals off a daisy while counting each petal very slowly until she reaches "nine" when the camera zoomed in on her pupil – and we saw a flash and mushroom cloud from a nuclear explosion. The issue was that Barry Goldwater might be too trigger happy and start a nuclear war. It was a fair issue although perhaps too powerfully done because the ad was immediately pulled amid a storm of controversy.

Another all-time great negative commercial aired in Kentucky during the 1984 campaign between two-term Democratic Senator Dee Huddleston and Republican challenger Mitch McConnell. The issue was Huddleston’s frequent absenteeism from the Senate - thus McConnell ran a series of commercials called "Where’s Dee" which featured a pack of bloodhounds looking high and low for the whereabouts of Senator Huddleston.

The ad was clever, creative, and funny but the truth was that Huddleston did not have a good attendance record in the Senate.

Another legendary ad aired in1988 and is simply known as the "straddle." Senator Bob Dole was running for the Republican Presidential nomination against Vice President George Bush and the election was close. The Bush campaign created the "straddle" ad to emphasize that Dole - as Senator - straddled  both sides of the fence on raising taxes.

The ad showed two faces of Bob Dole with a narrator saying in part, "George Bush won’t raise taxes, period. Bob Dole just won’t promise not to raise taxes. And you know what that means."

The "straddle" ad cost Dole the Republican nomination. Bush however did not keep his promise as stated in the ad - and went on as President to raise taxes and ultimately lost re-election in 1992.

The Bush spot proves negative ads won’t cost a candidate an election – but going back on your political word will.