We’re roughly 4,231 months into the 2012 presidential campaign, or so it seems. Even if you live in a very secure red or blue state (like me), you’ve probably already been subjected to an endless barrage of television ads if you live within about 300 miles of a swing state. And if you live in Richmond, the capital of the battleground state of Virginia, some 4,504 ads have already run (this one’s not an exaggeration), and exactly zero of them have been positive. That’s right, 4,504 out of the 4,504 ads run thus far in the market have been attack ads.
Such information usually inspires people to bellyache about negative campaigning. For instance, this past weekend I talked to my relatively apolitical brother, who said that a politician would instantly become a mass favorite by just being the first guy to run a positive campaign detailing what he was going to do, and forgoing the attacks on his opponent. I just smiled, nodded, and kept smoking the cigar he had generously given me.
I find the criticism of negative campaigning to be overwrought for three reasons. First of all, as Jim Geraghty mentions, they are simply more effective than positive ads. As he says, “if positive ads worked, campaigns would use them more frequently.” People like to complain about them, but attack ads do have an impact. I don’t know if we can accurately measure how persuasive they are, but campaigns would stop running them if they had any indication that they were ineffective.
Second, are “positive” ads any more bearable? No thirty second television spot is going to convey a tremendous amount of information. While we might roll our eyes as soon as the ominous music rolls while some low-voiced narrator explains why Mitt Romney likes to torture small animals and wants your grandmother to die in the street, the fluffy “Hi, I’m Joe McGenericcandidate, and I like puppies” ads are somehow even worse. Nine times out of ten, positive ads are nothing more than the candidate or his surrogates spouting generic nonsense that conveys almost no substantive information. Moreover, in a culture where people increasingly watch television shows through their DVRs specifically so that they can skip the commercials, we generally find all ads to be annoying. So who cares whether the tone of the political advertisement is positive or negative – they’re all equally insufferable. At least the negative ads are more likely to be somewhat funny and entertaining.
Finally, any person who bases their vote even partly due to political advertising should be banned from the polling booth. The first thing that should happen when a registered voter appears at the judges table – after flashing photographic identification – is them being asked if they only decided their vote after watching a thirty second television advertisement. If they answer yes, or if they answer no but it’s clear that they’re lying – and we can get people there who can tell when people are lying to them – then they should be politely escorted out of the building. If after several decades of campaigning you still can’t decide who to vote for, and you finally just wave your arms and say “I guess I’ll vote for the guy who says the other guy wants to murder my children in their sleep,” then you really should have no right to vote. I wouldn’t feel much better about this voter if he instead said “I guess I’ll vote for the guy who promises abortions for some and miniature American flags for everyone else.” Political advertising is geared towards dumb people and the politically ignorant (not a mutually exclusive group, necessarily). I really don’t care if the message being conveyed to them is negative or positive. The fact that any political advertising actually sways the electorate is depressing in its own right.