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.




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


Ahh yes, clueless as usual. Think of me when you cash your next welfare check would ya?


Wanna buy my stamps too? Got any heroin for sale??


Goofus: a well deserved screen name! That tax decrease is part of the reason we have an extremely high deficit. DUH!!!! The medicare part D and Iraq war are big reasons too. Let's cut out your SS check and medicare for starters!


What? Over spending has no bearing on the deficit?? I trust you sir are not an accountant!!!! A tax cut without a government spending cut is a folly!!


So you finally noticed what Republicans did from 2001-2007?


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


Aside from the negativity, Does anyone else think it is fitting that tonights debate will be held in "Boca Raton" which litterally translates into "Rats mouth"?


@ Randy_Marsh:

I had to look it up. LOL!!!

'"Boca Raton" can be loosely defined as "Mouth of the Rat" or "Rat's Mouth"'


Oh. My. GOD. Sometimes irony is pretty ironic, ain't it, LOL!


Re:Me too, my wife, who is biracial,

Half Republican and half Democrat ?????

The Big Dog's back

It doesn't take a Rocket Scientist to see all the racist and hate filled remarks come from the right wing. (fascists)


Tonight, during the debate, President Obama looks and sounds presidential. He is able to point out a comprehensive foreign policy that has many many successes, and few, if any failures. He is able to point out example after example of cases in which Romney opposed the Obama plan that ended up working out. Romney, in comparison, looks very ill at ease, stutters a lot more than he did in the other debates. He is left with either agreeing with Obama, or advocating a policy that has already been proven to not work.

Desperate to score points during the debate, Romney keeps bringing up things which have been demonstrably proven false. Is this just more of the Republican ""bubble", an imaginary world in which facts don't get in?


I'm voting Tuesady, Oct.23. If you'd like to know who I'm voting for this Life-long Democrat will give you a huge hint. I'm voting for the guy who so far hasn't lied. I didn't have to read or google for the truths. I heard a certain candidate continually lie and I'm positive it is beyond Him to talk any length of time without lying or make false promises. It's really sad. The popular vote should be over 80% for the winner. It really shows the stupidity of voters. Two million more teachers and a trillion more in Education would help very little, Really Scary!!


Quite possibly He sounded Presidential to "YOU" because he is still the President. I might add, He's still the same guy who has jerked our strings for the last 3 1/2 plus years. Just what lie did Romney tell? Not about the GM bail-out. I will admit that the Golden One has better foreign relationships especially when He keeps bowing, they really, really like Him. Oh, maybe you forgat His promise to Putin? I think you have Alzheimers coming on, better get a check-up.


I hate to even suggest this, but the French have the right model when it comes to elections. Campaigns and posting of campaign literature are limited to the time frame of six weeks prior to the election. No campaigning of any sort outside of that time frame. PACs are not allowed. I don't know if they have robo calls over there, but I am sick to death of them over here. We have important issues and we have a president without a blue print of specifics and an opponent who apparently doesn't either. Wouldn't it be nice to have their specific action plans prior the election? Based on having nothing but their history to compare, the choice is hands down for one of them....I will let you figure out that one!


Contango, Did you remember Chrysler got a big government loan guarantee-(bailout)in 1979?


None of this will influence anyone.


Does anyone else feel strange when obama says i killed binladen. I know in war you do what is needed but to see a standing president boast about killing seems to degrade the office. He needed taken out but why do my kids have to here the president say i killed over and over. Done deal right

Mr. D

If you dont want your kids to hear it send them to their rooms. . . Turn off the tv. . . Teach them to bury their heads in the sand!!!


Colin Powell, an avowed Republican, is backing Obama. He cites the evidence that the economy is improving, and says that Romney clearly hasn't done his homework, with regards to foreign policy.

What bothers me is that Romney STILL hasn't given any credible statistics to show how he could possibly cut the deficit. He plans to further cut income/revenue, but plans to renew the Bush tax cuts to the rich, while expanding defense spending by $2 trillion. The math is easy: if you cut income and increase spending, you can't address the deficit.

The above problems are just at the federal level. Individual middle-class Americans will feel the pinch right in their pocketbook because Mitt is on record promising that he will do away with home mortgage tax deductions and college loan deductions on our federal taxes. He also plans to cut funding for college Pell grants. Overnight, these policies will take at least $3000 out of my pocket next year. It'll be the same for all of us, unless you're in Mitt's Lucky 1% Club.

It's not too late to wake up and take Romney at his word, that he will do the abovementioned things he promised to do during the GOP primaries are the real Romney. Regardless of whether you think Obama is the answer, it's quite obvious that Romney is NOT the answer. Romney's economic plan, what little he has divulged, is obviously a carbon copy of George W. Bush's. Regardless of what you think of Obama, does anyone really want to go back to 2007-2008? See kids, THAT is the "change" that Romney will bring.

If you have 2 minutes, check out a video on YouTube: do a search for "The Romney Presidency: A (Plausible) Look Back"


two puppets....same master...we have a third choice....