The Mean Season: Negativity in Election 2012

In the America viewed through the lens of a presidential campaign commercial, coal miners hear that their jobs are "in danger," voters are warned that "China is stealing American ideas," and the middle class, it's been said time and again, is "falling further behind." President Barack Obama has failed to "stop cheaters" while Republican challenger Mitt Romney simply won't "level with us about his tax plan" — or, for that matter, his own taxes. And, let us not forget: Big Bird may well be an endangered species.
Associated Press
Oct 22, 2012

Need a shower to cleanse away the residue of negativity coating Election 2012? You're not alone.

This campaign season is awash in the stuff — meaning so, too, is the commonwealth. Blame technology for the endless candidate-bashing e-mails, or YouTube for at-your-fingertips access to advertisements typically seen in only a handful of states, or the 24/7 media environment. Blame, even, the Supreme Court for its 2010 decision that loosened campaign finance restrictions, giving rise to the super PACs responsible for so many of the contentious ads of today.

And blame the campaigns themselves, whose strategists recognize "going negative" as an approach that, while distasteful to voters, can and does work.

"The fact of the matter is negative ads ... are more effective than positive ads. They're more likely to be remembered. They're more likely to get attention through the news media and therefore get repetition," says Shanto Iyengar, who directs the Political Communication Lab at Stanford University and co-authored the book, "Going Negative," a study of the effects of negative advertising on the electorate.

Voters, too, must accept some blame for the unpleasantness. After all, what exchanges are your friends — or you — engaging in on Facebook and Internet comment boards these days? We Americans like to think of ourselves as positive, productive, forward-thinking and looking. And yet we are not only susceptible to this ugliness, we oftentimes help to spread it.

Negativity, says Iyengar, gets voters' "juices flowing. You've heard Republicans saying, 'I wish Romney would do more of this,' because it tends to energize them. That's what they want. They want some red meat out there. In the final analysis everyone complains, but that doesn't mean that they don't listen."

Nor does it mean that this thing that can feel so alienating isn't, in some ways, actually good for a democracy. Just ask John Geer, a political scientist at Vanderbilt University whose own book on negative campaigning offers a defense of the tactic.

"I have a positive campaign for negative campaigning," he likes to quip, and it goes something like this:

— Negative advertisements and statements tend to be more substantive than positive ones.

— Negative advertisements and statements help to highlight differences between candidates.

— Negative advertisements and statements can help engage the public because, well, conflict can do that.

"A positive ad tells you that the candidate favors educated children, more jobs and a clean environment. Wow," says Geer, with more than a hint of sarcasm, "we've learned that somebody favors more jobs and a stronger economy.

"If you ask the American public: Do you want to know about whether the other side will raise taxes or whether a candidate flip-flops or whether a candidate has enough experience — all the stuff that makes up most negative ads — they say, 'Yeah. We want to know that information.' But if you say: Do you want more negative ads? They say no."

Emmett Buell, another expert in all-things-antagonistic in politics, agrees that the tit-for-tat tactics can "contribute invaluably to the American electoral process." He notes: "Once in a while we get candidates who are exaggerators. Those people need to be found out. If candidates were restricted from criticizing each other ... there'd be no challenge to that."

In the sheer quantity of negative advertising and amount of dollars being spent, this year may mark the birth of an unprecedented era of negative campaigning, according to political scientists and campaign watchers. Contributing to the atmosphere is our extended campaign cycle of today, in which the barbs start flying long before the post-convention, fall campaign.

The standard formula of old — in which a candidate sought to first introduce himself to voters with positive messages before taking on, or down, his opponent — has also become a thing of the past. Says Iyengar: "Today you go negative from Day 1."

But are modern-day presidential contests — and, in particular, this super PAC-dominated race of 2012 — actually nastier? Not necessarily.

Sure, this year has brought us the so-called "Understands" ad, paid for by a pro-Obama super PAC, in which a man talks about losing his health insurance, and his wife's subsequent death from cancer, in connection with Romney's Bain Capital closing the steel plant where he worked. "I do not think Mitt Romney realizes what he's done to anyone," says the former steel worker, Joe Soptic, "and furthermore I do not think Mitt Romney is concerned."

On the other side, there's the much-analyzed pro-Romney ad that accuses Obama of "gutting welfare reform" by stripping the work requirement from the nation's welfare law. After independent fact-checkers found the premise to be false, a Romney pollster countered that the campaign would not be "dictated by fact-checkers."

Beyond the airwaves, smears show up in stump speeches by the candidates, their running mates or surrogates. Think: Vice President Joe Biden warning that Romney and Republicans would put Americans "back in chains" in order to curb regulations on big banks. Or Romney referring to Obama's presidency as "angry and desperate."

Nevertheless, a lot of this pales in comparison with some of the negative tactics of campaigns past, says Buell, who studied almost five decades' worth of campaign statements to pen the book, "Attack Politics: Negativity in Presidential Campaigns Since 1960."

In the 13 presidential races from 1960 to 2008, Buell's research team concluded, the most negative was the 1988 contest between then-Vice President George H.W. Bush and Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, featuring the infamous "Willie Horton" commercial about a murder convict who committed rape and assault during a weekend furlough program that Dukakis had at one time supported. Bush also referenced the program in campaign appearances.

Also up there: The 1964 race between Lyndon B. Johnson and Barry Goldwater, with its jarring "Daisy Girl" ad. Probably the most famous of all campaign commercials, the ad juxtaposed a little girl plucking the petals off of a flower with a countdown to a nuclear explosion in an attempt to characterize Goldwater as an extremist who couldn't be trusted with America's national security. It aired only once as a paid advertisement, but received far more attention in subsequent news reports.

That doesn't mean campaigns have become more hostile because of the advent of television and, thus, the TV ad, Buell says.

Consider the 1864 race in the midst of the Civil War, in which George McClellan derided President Abraham Lincoln as an "idiot" and a "baboon." Or the 1884 contest between Grover Cleveland (chided by his opponents over allegations that he'd fathered a son out-of-wedlock with the mantra, "Ma, Ma, Where's My Pa?") and James G. Blaine (accused of using political influence for favors with the slogan: "Blaine, Blaine, James G. Blaine. The continental liar from the state of Maine.") Or the 1928 campaign featuring Herbert Hoover and Al Smith, who as the first Catholic to run for president was targeted by the Ku Klux Klan and others with seething propaganda.

Geer, for one, doesn't happen to find this year's campaign all that negative at all. Most of the advertisements he's analyzed are "very matter-of-fact: He's going to raise your taxes and not create jobs; he doesn't have the experience to do this or that.

"Thomas Jefferson was attacked as the Anti-Christ in 1800. Andrew Jackson's mother was attacked as being a prostitute. And the country survived and even prospered," he says. "I think we'll weather these storms. I'm not even sure they are storms. It may be just a light rain shower at best or maybe even a little bit of sunshine."

Of course try telling that to American voters, especially those in the swing states seeing more than their fair share of this "sunshine." Listen to four who have grown so annoyed by the negativity in campaign 2012 they've each written (at least) one letter to the editor or newspaper column about the subject.

Their worries extend beyond Election Day, as they wonder what lasting effects the doom and gloom of yet another campaign season might have on an already divided America.

"I'm not an online kind of guy, but you post a couple of things and it spreads like wildfire," says Mark Cann, 64, a retired businessman and Romney supporter who lives just outside of Cincinnati. "It's so easy now to spread negative thoughts or inaccuracies or innuendoes ... that has a lot to do with driving people's thoughts and behaviors and actions.

"I think it's sort of bad for society. But ... that's just the way we are nowadays."

Charles Lawson, 72, a retired contractor who is leaning toward Obama, is fed up not only with what he sees on TV but with what he hears in the many robocalls that come to his home in Stagecoach, Nev. "Basically it's totally negative. There's nothing on those calls I get that says what they're going to do and how they're going to do it. It's all: Obama did this, or Obama did that, or Obama didn't do this or didn't do that. I talk to a lot of people, and they're disgusted."

Pam Porter, 57, resides in Valley Center in the non-swing, solidly Republican state of Kansas. But even she was inspired to pen a letter to The Wichita Eagle decrying the unsavory tactics that she sees at all levels — from the race for the White House to local city council elections.

"Candidates, special interest groups and the media seem to be trying to divide not only parties but the country as well. Then after the election is over, the winner doesn't understand why we all can't get along or why so few voted," wrote Porter, a Romney backer. In an interview, Porter added that if the candidates would just talk more substance and less trash, "I wouldn't feel like I'm picking the lesser of two evils. I don't really feel like either one has done that."

And then there's the take of George Corneliussen in Montgomery, Ohio. The 62-year-old piano tuner, leaning toward Obama, finds the negativity in this year's campaign not only unpalatable, but downright insulting. "They must have such little faith in the American public understanding what they're saying that they don't even attempt to take an educated route toward winning an election. They go directly to the lowest-common denominator.

"The person who is going to get my vote," he says, "is the person who can show me that they respect Americans in general."

The good news is not one of these voters was so turned off that they actually won't vote. Another half-glass-full way of looking at it: They'll get that chance in only a matter of weeks and then they can, at least until the next election, turn on their TVs without feeling filthy.




Another AP post that means nothing. Many paragraphs about nothing whatsoever. Read first, middle and last. You get the jest.

The New World Czar

If this were a facebook post, I'd hit "Like". You're correct, this article is filler material at best.


I am tired of hearing the same old thing from MSM outlets; Romney won't level with us on his tax plan. Funny how the media really just refuses to report on Romney's plan. His tax plan is out there, and can easily be found with a simple google search. He has leveled with people both by putting the plan out on the internet and speaking about it in the debates (when not being interrupted by the liberal moderate or Pres Obumbles). The question is, what is Obama's plan? He really hasn't given one, nor spoke of one on the campaign trail. If his plan is to continue to borrow from China, and keep throwing free goodies to the poor, that is something that we could do without. It just floors me how many people are completely ignorant as to how much Obama's policies are going to hit the middle class. The bottom line is that in order for Obama to pay for his policies, he is going to have to levy a huge tax on the middle class. There are already studies out there that show if you levied a 90% tax rate on just the rich, it would barely make a dent in the national debt. Anybody who thinks Obama isn't going to raise taxes on the middle class is nuts.

Second Opinion

What I’d like to hear is Barack Obama resigning over Benghazi, the most extreme public mishandling of an attack on American personnel ever, certainly in my lifetime. If I (or most people) had been president and something like that happened on my (our) watch — and then I had lied about it myself while urging others to cover up — I would be so ashamed of myself I wouldn’t be able to come out in public.

But that’s not what happened. In fact, the reverse occurred. The president acted as if it was Mitt Romney’s fault for ever bringing the subject up. And he had a willing co-conspirator in the morally stunted Candy Crowley.


I find it hilarious that the Cleveland Plain Dealer and Akron Beacon Journal endorsed Obama despite, as they stated in their endorsement, "his clear lack of an agenda for a second term." Shows how ignorant people in Northeast Ohio are. On a side note, the Uber-liberal~ Columbus Dispatch endorsed Mitt Romney, LMAO!!!


"the Uber-liberal Columbus Dispatch". LMAO!!! The Columbus Disgrace hasn't endorsed a democrat since Woodrow Wilson.

The New World Czar

The "lack of an agenda" is a smoke and mirrors cover for additional "share the wealth", aka suburbs "donating" to bail out fiscally-failed municipalities. Cite the new Lear-Nagel interchange on IR 90 in Avon and their "revenue sharing" with adjoining's already happening.


Sorry Knuckle, the Columbus Dispatch is not liberal and endorsed Kasich for Governor in 2010 and McCain in 2008. It usually endorses Republicans. Nothing new here. Pay attention.


Reread my post and you will soon see, who wasn't paying attention, LOL.


Knuckle...I was referring to this statement that you made:
"On a side note, the Uber-liberal~ Columbus Dispatch endorsed Mitt Romney, LMAO!!!"
To which I replied that the Dispatch is not liberal...always endorses Republicans.


LMAO at all the libs who completely missed the symbol for sarcasm (~) that was placed after the word Uber-liberal. Your posts only served to prove my original point, that liberals in this part of the state are ignorant. If you are that incapable of paying attention to detail, should you really be voting. LOL, ignoramus.


Ooohh...hahahaha (sheepish laugh). Thanks for pointing out my ignorance. How in the world could I be such an ignoramus. Thank you Knuckle Dragger, for enlightening me on such an official use of punctuation. I am a better person for having learned this. You are a great guy for handling it so well.~


Nothing is new in negative campaigning as the article notes. In fact, negative campaigning has actually IMPROVED over the years. Imagine, for example, Barack Obama accusing Mitt Romney of being an hermaphrodite! (John Adams' opponent did just that.)

People say they don't like negative ads, but do you know why we keep seeing them? BECAUSE THEY WORK. Yes, I'd also like to see more reasons to vote FOR a candidate, and fewer reasons to vote AGAINST another. But whatever we say when a pollster questions us, the reality seems different and as a result, the flavor of campaigns shouldn't be expected to change anytime soon.

Really are you ...

Twenty- four million people out of work. The middle income class is shrinking, inevitably the lower income class growing. Middle class workers produce a good portion of our GDP. Bring quality jobs back to the United States, our lost manufacturing jobs and new innovative products. There would be less “government handouts,” because people trying to make an honest living would be able to find quality employment. With those people working there would be a bigger tax base and more consumers spending. I am talking about full time direct hire businesses, not part time or part time low paying jobs. You cannot function off of a part time low wage job. How many of the wealthy one percent actually performs physical labor on the manufacturing floor of a plant they own? How much have the top one percent profited from moving jobs out of the States? Where did all of the stimulus money eventually end up? Hopefully it was not used to keep campfires going, it has to be somewhere. We need to regroup, strengthen, and rebuild our own economy. Not just for our own little piece of land here in Ohio, but for every city, every county, and every state that is a part of this great country. Also, the Unites States is not the worlds’ police. Bring our troops back out of harm’s way; the people of the Middle East seem to think that we are infidels anyways. I may have been off topic, but we need to do exactly opposite of what has put the United States in this mess that it is currently in right now.


"Deny, deny, deny" - the 'bold' Democrat strategy since the DNC.

The presidential candidate rutting should be fun tonight.

If Mr. Obama were a REAL leader, he'd fire some people at the CIA and within his own Admin. over the Benghazi Intel mess.


Pres. Obama during the "You didn't build that" speech:

"I'm always struck by people who feel, 'Well, it must be because I'm just so smart.'"

It just helped to show his contempt for business risk takers.


Naw they will do as the did with the fast and furious scandle and give everyone involved a raise and a new job title to shut them up. This admin is giving John Gotti a run for the title of "Teflon don"


@ Randy_Marsh:

Speaking of leaders; I was reminded this morning of Lee Iacocca and his quest for a convertable.

When he asked for one, his Chrysler designers and production people said that it would take months.

He said: Take a car and cut the d*mn roof off!

He drove it around and got favorable attention. He then told 'em to get busy producing one.

A leader thinks 'outside the box.'

Instead of jettin' off to La-La Land, Mr. Obama shoulda had his Intel staff on the carpet asking: What the H*ll happened????


Romney's tax plan is to lower tax rates by 20 percent for everyone, including the wealthy. What he won't say is how he will pay for it. Must be a reason for that. I know some of you think Romney is your personal savior because he is rich but ask yourself how he got rich. He redistributed middle class wealth to him by putting many people on the unemployment line. Many people. Go ahead, all of you so called intelligent Americans, vote for him. We all know it is just a vote against Obama. This guy has put up with the most racist hate filled attcks in the history of this country. It's okay though because some of you think you are superior but you are not. This black guy comes out of nowhere and spanks your so called war hero/POW and you just can't handle it. He did all the right things that make him very worthy of the presidency. Your rules, your game, you lose! It's okay though to lie to go to war and send your loved ones home all mangled or in a coffin. Jokes you are, JOKES!


So you are saying the main reason you are voting for him is based off of his race? Thats kinda racist if you ask me. If you get into the policys of this admin they closely resemble that of Bush, Did you like his policys? BTW 40 billion a month going to the banks, Do you now believe in trickle down and the patriot act because of the guy in the oval office?


Your words Randy, not mine. I voted for him because he was/is the most qualified. There is no such thing as trickle down. Those were Reagan's policies not Obama's. 40 billion a month going to the banks? LOL! Where do you get this stuff? Faux news? Patriot act? Really?


No such thing as "Trickle down"? Someone better inform the admin.
Unlike you i do get my info from more than one place.


Where's the trickle? The single letter I should always be capitalized! Didn't bloomberg tell you that? English 101!


The best you have as a rebuttle is correcting a grammar mistake? Thats just sad man.


Yup, that's all he has. It was easy for him to figure out the rules of grammar since he does all his posting from the library. LOL


I hope one day junior brings Nicki Minaj home for dinner! LOL!


Me too, my wife, who is biracial, would be proud as would I since he has chosen someone successful.


No bones about it, and it really isn't a secret, deertracker is a racist who gets all of his news from PMSNBC.


Moderators have removed this comment because it contained Personal attacks (including: name calling, presumption of guilt or guilt by association, insensitivity, or picking fights).