There is a near-unanimous sentiment among the high-minded that negative advertising is a bad thing. It pollutes the air even more than carbon dioxide. It breeds cynicism about politics and government. It is somehow unfair.To those who decry the money spent on campaign advertising, I note that in the 2008 election cycle, Presidential candidates combined spent $711.5 million on "media" (broadly defined to include consultants and loans). For comparison, a single company -- Proctor & Gamble -- had an advertising budget of "approximately 8.68 billion dollar[s] in 2009." Negative or positive, American politicians don't over-spend on ads.
In response, let me say a few words in praise of negative ads.
First, elections are an adversary business, zero-sum games in which only one candidate can win and all the others must lose. Sometimes it's smart for competitors to concede points to their opponents. But it's irrational to expect one side to sing consistent praises of the other.
In second-grade elections, it may be considered bragging to vote for yourself. But it is silly to expect adults to behave this way.
It is especially foolish to expect that candidates who seem headed to win elections should escape criticism on television. Every candidate has weak points and makes mistakes. It's not dirty pool for opponents to point them out.
Second, it is said that negative ads can be inaccurate and unfair. Well, yes -- but so can positive ads. An inaccurate or unfair ad invites refutation and rebuttal, by opponents or in the media, and can boomerang against the attacker. So candidates have an incentive to make attacks that can be sustained.
Sometimes voters respond negatively even to fair attacks. That's why in multicandidate races, an attack by candidate A on candidate B can hurt A as well as B, and end up helping candidate C or D.
That's why many campaigns hesitate before attacking. And it also gives them a motive to make attacks that can be sustained because they are accurate and fair.
Third, advertising is not always decisive. Other things can matter more. The barrage of negative ads against Gingrich hurt him in Iowa and New Hampshire, but in South Carolina (which has not yet voted as I write) it did not prevent him from overtaking first Santorum and drawing even with Romney in the polls. Debate performances trumped attack spots.
Behind the disdain of the high-minded for negative campaign spots is a fear that they will erode Americans' faith in politics and government. These folks like to cite polls showing Americans once had great confidence in institutions and that now they lack it.
But polls have been showing lack of faith in institutions going back to the late 1960s. The only time when pollsters found high levels of confidence was when the questions were first asked in the 1950s. That was during the two decades when American institutions -- big government, big business, big labor -- enjoyed enormous prestige after they led the nation to victory in World War II and presided over the unexpected growth and prosperity of the postwar era.
Thursday, January 26, 2012
From political observer extraordinaire Michael Barone: