Ready, Aim, Fire!

Attack ads are ubiquitous this campaign season, but they are not the threat to the electoral process that do-gooders claim.

Barack Obama has been "palling around with terrorists" and wants to teach 5-year-olds about sex? John McCain is "out of touch," in bed with lobbyists behind the housing-market meltdown and doesn't know Ctrl-Alt-Delete from @?

Please. For true connoisseurs, such attacks are to negative campaigning what boxed wine is to a 1961 Château Lafite: a weak imitation of the real thing, a tease that makes one yearn for the vintages of yore. We're thinking here of vintages such as 1800 when, during the Thomas Jefferson-John Adams presidential race, the Connecticut Courant wrote that if Jefferson won, "murder, robbery, rape, adultery and incest will be openly taught and practiced, the air will be rent with the cries of the distressed, the soil will be soaked with blood, and the nation black with crimes." New Englanders, Advertising Age noted in an editorial last April praising negative campaign ads, "reportedly hid their Bibles for fear that the infidel president would declare them illegal." Or vintages such as 1828, when supporters of presidential candidate and incumbent John Quincy Adams called opponent Andrew Jackson a cannibal and a murderer. The previously married Mrs. Jackson got off easy; Adams's supporters merely accused her of being a whore.

The fine tradition of negativity and attacks goes back to the nation's founding document. By the count of political scientist John G. Geer of Vanderbilt University, 70 percent of the statements in the Declaration of Independence are not uplifting promises of more-just and democratic governance, but attacks on England and George III ("He has obstructed the Administration of Justice," "He has dissolved Representative Houses" and, of course, "He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people"). These criticisms "provided the basis for thinking about abuses of power and the centrality of certain basic human rights," Geer writes in his 2006 book "In Defense of Negativity: Attack Ads in Presidential Campaigns." "Without such negativity, the argument for establishing a new nation that 'derived its just powers from the consent of the govern[ed]' would not have been possible."

While that may be hyperbolic, focusing the colonists' minds on the nefarious doings of King George III undoubtedly advanced revolutionary fervor from Massachusetts to Georgia—just as today's negative ads and their more-extreme version, attack ads, serve important electoral functions beyond getting someone elected. (We'll define negative ads as those that criticize an opponent's record or positions on key issues, and attack ads as those that rip into his character.) Recognizing the role of negative ads represents a complete about-face from the scholarly thinking that held sway as recently as the 1990s. Then, as for decades, conventional wisdom among academics and political junkies had been that sleazy ads and dirty campaigning depress voter turnout by stoking disenchantment and cynicism ("they're all liars and crooks") and polluting the electoral process, making politics so distasteful "that people want to get as far from it as possible," says political scientist Jon Krosnick of Stanford University. But both lab experiments and analyses of actual elections now show that the effect on turnout is more nuanced. Beyond turnout, there is a realization that, as Geer argues, "negativity plays an important and underappreciated role in democracies," in large part by presenting more, and more detailed, information than positive ads do. And make no mistake about what may be the most valuable information voters glean from attack ads and mudslinging: a sense of the candidate ("and I approved this message") who paid for them.

All of which is fortunate, since negative ads have become as omnipresent this campaign season as down days for the Dow. According to Nielsen Media Research, from June 3 to Sept. 7, the McCain campaign ran negative ads 76,238 times, while Obama made 75,246 such placements, with both concentrating the attacks in the battleground states of Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Despite promising during the primaries to run a different, positive campaign, Obama has often gone way negative: in the week after the GOP convention, found the Wisconsin Advertising Project, 77 percent of Obama's ads were negative, compared with 56 percent of McCain's. But in what may signal his growing desperation, in the week ending Oct. 4 nearly 100 percent of McCain's ads have been negative, according to the Wisconsin project, compared with 34 percent of Obama's.

If you believe pundits and voters, this should practically spell the end of democracy as we know it. Political elites, good-government groups and finger-wagging journalists regularly claim that negative ads undermine the electoral process, fail to tell voters why they should support the ad's sponsor (which is deemed more noble than explaining why they should not support the ad's target), alienate voters from electoral politics and drag campaigns down "to the level of tabloid scandal," notes Geer. The public says it shares this disdain for the negative. In a 2000 Gallup poll, only 19 percent of those surveyed said negative ads even "had a place in campaigns." Most voters say you cannot learn anything useful from negative ads. Polls in 2002 and 2004 found that 80 percent of voters believed negative ads are "unethical and damaging [to] our democracy," while 60 percent said such ads bothered them "very much."

In recent elections, people were equally divided on which ticket's ads were too negative, but not this time. In the new NEWSWEEK poll of 1,035 registered voters, 70 percent of respondents said McCain-Palin ads were "too negative or nasty," compared with 41 percent who thought Obama-Biden ads were. And 58 percent of those who have seen the GOP ticket's ads found them "misleading or distorted," while 36 percent thought that about the Democrats' ads.

So does a blizzard of negative ads keep disgusted voters at home on Election Day? Such was the thinking as recently as the 1990s. In lab experiments, volunteers who are shown actual attack ads say they are less likely to vote. But just because that's what people say right after being bathed in sleaze doesn't mean that's what they will actually do come Election Day. In fact, comparisons of turnout after races with many or few negative ads suggest that people are not so disgusted that they withdraw and vow a pox on all their houses: in races that bombarded people with negative ads, there was either no effect or an uptick in turnout. "It's a mistake to infer that attack ads depress turnout," says Krosnick.

Although the question isn't settled, wrote Paul Martin of the University of Virginia in a 2004 study in the journal Political Psychology, "studies demonstrating a mobilization effect seem to have the upper hand." The reason is that human beings have been honed by evolution to be more motivated to avoid a negative than to seek a positive. Early humans who failed to find lunch went hungry, but those who failed to avoid a lion became lunch. Failure to respond to messages conveying danger or threat or other negatives was therefore eliminated by the steady hand of natural selection. "The same psychological mechanism that attracts our attention to immediate dangers also draws our attention to negative ... information" such as that in political ads, argues Martin. Negative ads typically incite anger or anxiety, both of which stimulate attention and engagement. Where attention leads, response follows. We are wired to react more to negative information, says Stanford's Krosnick: "When voters dislike a candidate, they are more motivated to go out and vote," to keep that lying, cheating reprobate out of office.

The power of negative information to draw our attention explains in part why negative ads are (with exceptions we'll get to) effective: because people pay more attention to a message that seems threatening, they are more likely to remember the information in that message. Take the 1964 "daisy" ad, one of the most noted attack ads ever (even though it aired exactly once). It showed a little girl counting petals she plucks from a daisy, while an announcer counts down from 10. At zero, an image of a nuclear explosion fills the screen, and the voice-over says, "These are the stakes: to make a world in which all of God's children can live or to go into the dark … Vote for President Johnson on November 3." It never mentioned Barry Goldwater, Johnson's opponent, but the implication was clear: the GOP senator was a dangerous warmonger whose finger should not be allowed anywhere near the nuclear button. You can't credit (or blame) the ad for Johnson's victory, but it helped, probably by strengthening support for Johnson among those already leaning toward him rather than by swaying undecided voters. "Think of attack ads as serving to reinforce the support of the already converted and to energize them," says Krosnick. "It can get your supporters to turn out, which can have just as big an impact as moving the undecideds."

The social and economic climate during a campaign can, however, dilute the power of negative ads. The parlous state of the nation today is unique in the lifetimes of every voter born after the Great Depression. As a result, says political psychologist George Marcus of Williams College, efforts by the McCain campaign to link Obama to William Ayers, a Chicago education professor who in the 1960s belonged to the radical Weather Underground, and to Chicago financier and convicted money-launderer Tony Rezko, are unlikely to gain traction. "Who cares about that when the country is going off the rails?" Marcus asks. In contrast, McCain ads early in the summer linking Obama to his controversial former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, and painting him as a lightweight, smooth-talking, style-and-no-substance celebrity had an impact, says Marcus, keeping Obama's support in the 42 to 43 percent range. Still, says political scientist Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia, McCain has little choice at this point but to go negative. "Positive ads for McCain are a waste," he says. "People are only going to support him if they reject Obama," and only ads attacking him have a prayer of making that happen.

Even those who admit the effectiveness of negative ads typically bemoan how they drag the noble pursuit of democracy into the gutter. Not Vanderbilt's Geer. Analyzing his database of ads in presidential campaigns from 1960 to 2000, he finds that "personal attacks are flat over the last 50 years," he says. "It's attacks on views that are rising."

And that, he says, is good. Although attack ads such as McCain's charging that Obama wants explicit sex ed for kindergartners get the media attention, in fact McCain's most-aired attack ads, according to Nielsen, went after Obama for failing to support more oil drilling, planning to raise taxes, and intending to spend the country into disaster. Obama's took aim at McCain for being clueless on the economy, supporting the Iraq War, being out to lunch on the housing crisis and "out of touch" with modern times (cue the 1970s-era disco ball) and the struggles of the middle class. Those choices are not an aberration, says Geer: "Negative ads are more likely to be about the important issues of the day than positive ads. They can therefore "actually advance the debate, not undermine it."

Much of the value of negative campaigning comes from the response it provokes. For one thing, attacks send the press into fact-checking mode, which injects even more information in the campaign, at least for engaged voters. For another, they cause the opposing candidate to respond. "Obama says he going to cut taxes for 95 percent of taxpayers, but McCain says Obama's plan will raise taxes for small businesses," Geer points out. "Because Obama is forced to respond to that, we learn more about his tax plan. Likewise, it was through prodding by Obama that we learned McCain's $5,000 health credit would come out of increased taxes." Even the 1988 Dukakis-in-a-tank ad had some factual basis and added to voters' knowledge, since Dukakis supported fewer new weapons programs than Bush did. As Ad Age editorialized last April, "whereas 'positive' political advertising eventually becomes a great deal of noise signifying nothing, negative advertising can teach voters more about the politicians involved … Voters learn about the person making the attacks and they learn about how the target responds to pressure." Hitting back at an attack signals to voters that a would-be president is tough and willing to retaliate when provoked, which plays into voters' desire for a leader who will protect them, stand up to threats and put up a fight on their behalf.

That underlines the value of another kind of information that negative ads, and especially attack ads, contain. Just as important as what they say about their target (and show about their target based on how he responds) is what negative ads—even, or perhaps especially, pure, baseless mudslinging—say about their sponsor. "If an ad attacks an opponent with misinformation, which engaged voters can identify [through media coverage or their own research], what people learn from it is that this candidate is willing to lie to get ahead," says Stanford's Krosnick. "So that's now information about the candidate who approved the ad, not the one it targets." The hand-wringing over negative campaigning is more than misplaced. It reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of how the mind and the emotions of the electorate work.