Construction Literary Magazine

Fall 2020

The Use of Negative Political Ads

The Use of Negative Political Ads

Image via Fox News

This week’s news that wealthy Republicans hope to spend $1 billion to defeat President Obama—the Koch brothers alone will outspend John McCain’s entire 2008 campaign—assures two outcomes. The first is that Obama will have to win reelection while being outspent. This was not the case in 2008; and when Mitt Romney was running roughshod over Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum in the primary, they protested that he was beating them on the basis of a spending advantage that wouldn’t exist in the general election. But now it seems Romney will continue to have this advantage, albeit not to the same extreme extent as in the primary.

The second thing the influx of cash means is that we can expect an increase in negative ads in the months to come. Jeb Bush, among others, has predicted this will be the most negative campaign ever. This makes sense: you have a deeply flawed challenger fighting an incumbent presiding over a struggling economy, and a court decision (Citizens United) that lets outside groups raise vast sums of money. Romney and his surrogates will attack Obama on the economy. Obama and his surrogates will attack Romney’s flaws. (Not to say that Obama doesn’t have plenty of accomplishments or that Romney doesn’t have plenty of positive qualities—they both do, of course). But all the conditions are in place for an extremely negative campaign.

So what can we expect from negative ads? Generally speaking, there are, it seems, two main avenues of attack for negative ads. The first is to build off of, and to reinforce, an existing narrative (see Ian Cheney’s column from Monday on the importance of narrative in presidential politics). For instance, George H.W. Bush’s infamous “Willie Horton” ad played off of the idea that Michael Dukakis was a soft-on-crime Massachusetts liberal:

The ad was effective—Dukakis had to waste time fighting the soft-on-crime label, and his views on crime remained omnipresent throughout the fall—at one debate, moderator Bernard Shaw asked Dukakis if he would favor the death penalty if a man raped and killed Dukakis’s wife. (Dukakis failed to show the requisite level of outrage, either at the hypothetical rapist-murderer or at Bernard Shaw.) In other words, it became a narrative.

No one has ever accused Barack Obama of being soft on crime. But Republicans, in addition to the sort of boilerplate attacks that fall along the standard party lines (e.g. Obama wants to raise taxes for big government while increasing the debt), want to make the case that he just doesn’t have what it takes to be President. This is an iteration of an attack Hillary Clinton made in the 2008 Democratic primary: that Obama was too inexperienced to be president:

Of course, Clinton’s ad ran before Obama had been in office for four years and was focused on national security, hardly ripe fodder for Republicans in this election season given Obama’s handling of the Osama Bin Laden raid. So what you’ll see is Republicans trying to tie the idea that Obama is in over his head to the faltering economy. Romney recently said that when it comes to said economy, Obama “just doesn’t have a clue.” On the other side, there are plenty of narratives about Romney, chief among them that he is a flip-flopper of the first order, a man without a political spine/heart/soul. In September and October, once more voters are turned in, I envision plenty of ads contrasting Romney’s various oppositional statements (e.g. first he said he would govern to the left of Ted Kennedy, then he said he governed as a severe conservative . . . how can we trust what he’ll be like as President?).

The second—and more interesting—way negative ads can work is to try to counter the opponent’s area of (presumed) strength—to hit ‘em where they seem to be the strongest. As I mentioned briefly last week, McCain attempted to do this in 2008 by mocking Obama’s celebrity status:

It didn’t work. Now Crossroads, Karl Rove’s outfit, is employing the same line of attack, though it has the added benefit of contrasting Obama’s popularity with the economy’s sluggish recovery:

One of the most successful examples of a negative campaign against a candidate’s presumed strength is the Swiftboat ads launched against John Kerry in 2004:

Kerry was using his military experience to bolster his campaign—he began his convention speech, “I’m John Kerry and I’m reporting for duty”—in much the same way that Romney is making his time at Bain Capital a hallmark of his run. So it’s no surprise that Obama has been attacking Romney’s time at Bain; turning this into a negative would cut away a major plank of Romney’s candidacy, while also secondarily playing into the established narrative that Romney is a very rich guy who cares about other very rich guys.

I’ve long been wondering when Democrats would start going after Romney’s stint as governor of Massachusetts, and the answer, it seems, is now. The Obama campaign released this ad today:

The ad serves the same purpose as the attack on Bain Capital: to deprive Romney’s “I know how to create jobs” claim of its legitimacy. It also seems like a preemptive move of sorts—to cast Romney’s governorship in a negative light before Romney even tries to use it to his advantage. And so far, Romney hasn’t really tried to—he’s been mostly mum about his Boston days. This was to be expected during the primary, when Romney had to impress conservatives. But now that we’re in general election mode, isn’t it strange that Romney isn’t bragging about this more? Governing a liberal state like Massachusetts as a Republican should, in theory, be appealing to a general electorate increasingly sick of congressional gridlock. But then again, that’s what you can expect out of this election: a little less bragging than usual, and a lot more attacking.