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politics as usual
if going negative doesn't work, why is everyone doing it?
by michelle von euw

“Jeanne Shaheen has raised taxes that hurt New Hampshire, taxes that hurt families.”

I don’t live in New Hampshire. But for the last several months, Boston television stations have been bombarded with advertisements attacking the governor of the Granite State, currently the democratic candidate for the United States Senate. During Seinfeld repeats and between Leno’s guests, we’ve seen unflattering photographs of Shaheen, plastered with big block letters accusing her of distorting the record, betraying New Hampshire citizens, and attempting to levy an income tax.

“John Sununu voted to let corporations set up false addresses in Bermuda to avoid paying taxes.”

Likewise, her opponent John Sununu has been the victim of similar ads, also a staple on Boston television. While Sununu was in Congress, we’re told, he never broke lockstep with the Republican Party, even when it hurt the independent-minded residents of New Hampshire. He wants to end social security in favor of private stock investments, supports tax break loopholes for offshore companies, and you should call him right now at this number and tell him how you feel about this.

“Jeb Bradley will dance away your tax dollars.”

At least Sununu and Shaheen make it clear what office they are running for. Another ad heavy in rotation shows a candidate named Bradley walking down the steps of the Capitol Building. The film is speeded up and reversed, to make it look like he’s dancing. A close up shows a pair of fast feet tapping out Fred Astaire-style moves, kicking dollar bills – your tax payer’s money, the heavy voiceover intones – then back to a full shot of the dancing politician. I had to do a search on the internet to find that Bradley is the Republican candidate for a New Hampshire house seat, and that his opponent, Martha Fuller Clark, probably paid for these advertisements.

I’m not naïve about politics – I majored in Political Communication, worked on local, state, and national campaigns from the time I was eight years old, interned in government my entire college career, and my first paid job out of college was on a Senate race. It’s safe to say that I understand why candidates run of negative advertisements – I took a class on the subject back in 1995, and was hired by the Harvey Gantt campaign exactly because that candidate has been the victim of 11th hour attack ads from the Jesse Helms which many believe lost Gantt the election six years before. Our campaign had an entire team of researchers who spent months coming up with instant responses to whatever Helms could conceivably throw at us. But we didn't have any of our own - negative ads were considered gauche back in 1996, something only desperate candidates did.

Negative campaigns have gone in and out of style since the 1960s, when television became the premier way for politicians to communicate with the voting public. In the mid-90s, the tone was very much against the smear campaigns paid for by opposing sides. Voter turnout was in a free-fall, and many Americans claimed that the negative advertisements that choked their television sets kept them from going to the polls at all. In response, many politicians took “positive” pledges, promising to use their television time only to promote their record and achievements.

In the past few years, voter turnout didn’t rise – in fact, it continued to decrease. Many Democrats blame the outcome of the 2000 presidential election of Al Gore’s inability to distinguish himself from George Bush – something that attack ads from the Democrats would have helped do. Races all over the country are extremely close, the stakes are significantly higher than they’ve been in recent times, with a Senate evenly split and only a very small Republican majority in the House, and both major parties have a plethora of soft money to use in media markets all over the country.

Hence, the attack ads. In the Boston media market, we’ve had the aforementioned New Hampshire ads and spots for Rhode Island candidates, as well as those for our own governor’s race, a contest so tight that Mitt Romney began airing ads attacking Shannon O’Brien even before the Democratic primary determined she’d be that party’s candidate.

What do I know about my state’s gubernatorial candidates? O’Brien will tax and spend us into oblivion. Romney isn’t even a resident of Massachusetts. As state treasurer, O’Brien invested our pension funds in Enron stock. Romney claims he will convince big companies to come to Massachusetts, but he’s already shut down one factory in Indiana and kicked thousands of workers out of their jobs.

“Jeanne Shaheen will burn down your grandmother’s house on Christmas.”

“John Sununu will steal your daughter’s lunch money and punch your son in the stomach.”

"Shannon O'Brien will make your taxes so high, you'll be in the poor house by June."

"Mitt Romney will close public schools and make your six-year-old work in a factory."

We joke about this, lowering our voices and escalating the charges as the advertisements play over and over again. For every positive ad, there’s at least seven negative ones aired, and that number rose as Election Day grew closer. My husband and I laugh at these ads, and call each other into the room when a new one comes on. “Honey, quick, it’s that dancing guy,” I’ve hollered more than once. “I might miss these when it’s all over,” he admitted the other day.

The outrageous attacks, the unflattering photographs and video clips, the phone numbers flashed on the screen in big letters: it’s all meant to entertain. We haven’t taken politicians seriously for decades, and politics play out like a Thursday night drama. September 11th didn’t change the way we look at our leaders – for a few months, some of us may have cared about how they’d address national security and terrorism. But we’re force-fed images that have nothing to do with serious conflict; instead, we’re presented candidates on a purely superficial, entertaining level.

And this morning, when the votes are counted and the results revealed, the negative advertisements will disappear from our television screens. But they’ll be back in two years, or four, or ten, competing with MTV and Trading Spaces for our attention, firing accusations that will grow even more outrageous, no matter who wins this round.


Originally from Boston, Michelle is a writer, editor, instructor, obsessive sports fan, loud talker, quick laugher, new mom, and chances are, she watches more television than you do. Follow her on Twitter at michellevoneuw

more about michelle von euw


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matt morin
11.6.02 @ 12:54a

I can't blame the politicians and their handlers for the glut of negative ads. If the American public cared enough about who was running the country to actually do a little research and get informed on each candidate, then they'd see right through negative or "entertaining" ads. Then politicians wouldn't run them

But the fact is, the vast majority of Americans don't vote, and most of the ones who do form their opinions based solely on what they learn from
TV ads. We want the sound bites that say "He's bad. He'll raise taxes." It makes it easy for us. We're superficial voters, hence the superficial ads.

jeffrey walker
11.6.02 @ 9:14a

Honestly, getting honestly informed is almost impossible. Name one source from whom you can get a fair and balanced opinion - And even if there was such a source, their facts came from where? The candidate - like they won't exaggerate to get elected.
Becoming informed gets EVEN HARDER as the imporance of the seat decreases. Political races on state and especially local levels are very difficult to know what offices are up for election, much less what everyone stands for. This is why "straight party" voting is so popular -- it's easy for dummies to feel like they are making a good choice, even though they don't know anything about half of the people they are voting for.


travis broughton
11.6.02 @ 9:49a

Honestly, getting honestly informed is almost impossible. Name one source...

League of Women Voters usually does a pretty good job. Local LOWV chapters often have voting guides that give good detail on the local races. There are a few URLs out there that provide a survey and then tell you how your responses match up to a candidate's.

If you're looking for something completely bias-free, you can always look at the incumbent's voting record on the issues you care about, and then decide whether or not you want a change.

russ carr
11.6.02 @ 10:21a

This only helps bear out what I was talking about last week -- politics in America has reached a point where candidacy matters very, very little. Walker hits it right on the head -- I think more people vote straight-party tickets. I know that canvassers in St. Louis city went door to door right up 'til Monday evening distributing door hangers that urged a straight Dem. ticket. And my guess is, that of a large population who do vote, many of them are older Americans who are ingrained in the party because that's the way their family has always been.

Here in MO, the candidate running against Dick Gephardt didn't run any TV ads, because (she said) it would send the campaign down the slippery slope of attacks and negative ads, and that was against everything she stood for. She gave The Big Dick his closest race ever...but he still won by 20 percent.

As I went back and forth between TV and online coverage, the one thing I noticed the most was that incumbents were being returned to office, I'd estimate 90 percent of the time. I don't think there were huge upsets anywhere, and most of the party turnover resulted from newly-vacant seats where both candidates were fresh. There is no "mandate for change." And with politicians the way they are, and Americans the way we are...I don't expect there to be.

juli mccarthy
11.6.02 @ 10:37a

I had to laugh about this because I received a call from Rod Blagojevich's campaign that never mentioned Rod Blagojevich! All it said was:
Woman's voice:"Listen to this anti-choice message from Republican gubenatorial candidate Jim Ryan."
Jim Ryan:"Hi, this is Jim Ryan and I am running for Illinois governer. I am proud to have the support of two pro-life organizations." Woman's voice: "Tsk, tsk, tsk!"

And on another front, a few months ago my county's states attorney, Meg Gorecki, was called on the carpet by her opposition for - get this - KEEPING her campaign promises. She was criticized for so effectively saving money that her office had a surplus of funds, which (they said) she was naturally going to use to run a smear campaign on her opponent (insert big eyeroll here.)

travis broughton
11.6.02 @ 10:45a

No huge upsets? One word: Georgia. Senate and Gov. both went from Dem incumbent to Republican challenger. First Republican governor since the cival war, or something like that. I'd call that fairly huge. But I'll concede that this was the exception, not the rule.

russ carr
11.6.02 @ 10:49a

I groaned every time an Illinois ad came on TV. As bad as the sniping was between Jim Talent and Jean Carnahan was, the stuff that came across the river was considerably worse.

A lot of political ads are like beer ads -- they tell you a lot about everything except the product.

travis broughton
11.6.02 @ 11:12a

My favorite negative ad in Texas was for Atty General. The GOP candidate was running on a platform of tort reform, but had successfully sued for $10M when a tree fell on him. It's hard to run a negative ad against a guy in a wheelchair, but the "one standard for him, another for the rest of us" seemed to resonate with a lot of people (although he still won the race).

jael mchenry
11.6.02 @ 2:49p

Maryland was also considered a huge upset. A Republican governor. Crap.

erik myers
11.6.02 @ 3:30p

My favorite ad, ever, I heard while I was driving through New Hampshire a few years back. My mix tape ended, and I turned on the radio to hear, "Dick sweat will cut your taxes. Dick sweat will increase employment rates. Dick sweat.." and so on.

I was stunned, until I hit the end of the commercial and heard: "Dick Swett, for U.S. Congress."

mary nettleton
11.6.02 @ 4:25p


did the dancing guy's commercial beat my all-time favorite: "earth to fred, earth to fred!"

mike julianelle
11.6.02 @ 8:26p

Oh man, I saw the "Dancing Guy" commercial. Best political attack ad of all time. So funny!

robert melos
11.6.02 @ 10:38p

I thought John Sununu died several years ago?

In New Jersey the mud slinging was over the age of Frank Lautenberg (80). His opponent made several bad references to his being too old to be running for office. Lautenberg won.

michelle von euw
11.7.02 @ 9:25a

Mary, I can't believe I forgot about "earth to Fred." But, yeah, the dancing guy was even better.

Robert, the John Sununu who won the NH Senate seat is the son of the first Bush's chief of staff.

Tracey (& anyone else), I'd like to hear your take on the Minnesota election: do you think the way the Dems acted at Wellstone's memorial service turned voters off?

sarah ficke
11.7.02 @ 10:51a

Here is a story from the UK that someone brought to my attention. It's interesting to see what someone with another system of government feels about our own. Obviously, this guy is very opinionated, but I think he is right about a few things, and describes the ad campaigns perfectly.


russ carr
11.7.02 @ 12:24p

Michelle: I heard back from my buddy in Rochester, MN, and he forwarded an AP article to me regarding the service's likely impact on the polls. The article also notes that in the last days, Coleman's active, energetic campaign demonstrated that he has an energy for the job that the (21 years) older Mondale couldn't match.

tracey kelley
11.7.02 @ 12:39p

Well, it shot Iowa Dem incumbant Harkin to the forefront, but not by much - I think the final numbers were 54-48. Many Iowa Dems were on the fence until Harkin's passionate speech (because of Harkin's "Tapegate" incident, many normal Dems were undecided).

While the memorial service was a travesty, I don't think the voters had that much interest in Mondale. I believe Wellstone supporters rallied around Mondale to keep Wellstone's spirit alive, and had Wellstone lived, it probably would have been a much tighter race, but Mondale alone was not enough to swing the election.

matt morin
11.7.02 @ 2:42p

And in the Lesser of Two Evils Race (aka the CA Governor's voting) at least Davis won.

After Davis' TV ads pointed out that Bill Simon's last two companies were sued for massive fraud, Simon's ads actually featured him saying this: "I'm not a politician, and I'm not perfect, but I want to represent California."

So...you have no qualifications for the job, and you admit you're a shady businessman. Nice.

erik myers
11.7.02 @ 2:57p

Although I can see that his point might possibly have been, "Look, I'm not perfect, but that doesn't mean I won't make a good governor."

I think it's really shallow of people to dig into the personal lives of politicians. I don't care what they did 10 or 15 years ago. I want to know if they'll vote the way I want them to, today.

Now.. this is a bad example following the massive fraud bit. I always think back to the whole Bill Clinton/smoking pot thing.


russ carr
11.7.02 @ 3:20p

Along with the "I did not have sexual relations with that woman...but I did" thing. It knocked me over when I heard that Joe Biden was still running -- and winning. Makes you wonder just what it takes to get people's moral outrage to the point where they'd say, "This guy's a weasel, we're not re-electing him!"

russ carr
11.7.02 @ 3:57p

Here's a follow up on the Wellstone thing from Steve Perry, who is a fairly staunch liberal Dem. But he as much as admits the Party blew it, and suggests the likelihood of a ripple effect.

sarah ficke
11.7.02 @ 4:19p

It knocked me over when I heard that Joe Biden was still running -- and winning. Makes you wonder just what it takes to get people's moral outrage to the point where they'd say, "This guy's a weasel, we're not re-electing him!"

What makes Joe Biden a weasel?

russ carr
11.7.02 @ 5:36p

Here's why. Back in the '88 presidential race, Biden was exposed for plagiarizing UK politician Neil Kinnock and Bobby Kennedy, and for inflating his academic records.

robert melos
11.7.02 @ 8:19p

Russ, I thought I was the only one who remembered Biden's plagiarism scandal. It seems most of the articles I read on the man overlook that part of his history, even the less flattering articles.

Of course I could point out most of the media also overlooks G.W.'s past addictions. The attitude seems to be to bury the past. When it comes down to the political scandals, at least Clinton had the fun one.

michelle von euw
11.8.02 @ 9:07a

I got to say, Russ -- those are the lamest examples of plagiarism ever. (Especially judged today against Stephen Ambrose and Doris Kearns Goodwins' missteps.) I've heard about 4000 variations on Kinnock's speech - it's not exactly a unique experience.

But then again, the '80s were a contentious time for political "scandal" -- we had Gary Hart's affair, pot-smoking Supreme Court nominees, and this. By the time we got to Clinton's "mistakes in his marriage" (circa 92), I think the American public was sick to death of the media holding politicians to sometimes ridiculously high standards.

russ carr
11.8.02 @ 9:56a

Yeah, but Ambrose and Goodwin aren't running for office. I agree that on a continuum of transgressions, pinching someone else's phraseology isn't exactly a mortal sin. But back in '88, the first election in which I was old enough to vote, the whole thing (and yeah, Gary Hart, too) seemed scandalous. It galled me to see Biden, years later, on the Senate Judiciary Committee, given that the only thing I associated with his name was plagiarism and misrepresentation of his law school records.

My point remains, though: given the missteps we know about some politicians, at what point nowadays does the constituency say, "Y'know, if this guy's done (or is doing) X, then maybe I don't want him representing my best interests."

erik myers
11.8.02 @ 10:01a

For some points that's quite true. In the case of Biden, I completely and wholeheartedly agree, but some of the things that are dug up from people's pasts are really stupid skeletons that have been dug out of the closet. I'll go back to the (poor) example of Bill Clinton having tried pot in college. Whoopdee-doo. People do shit like that in college, and I don't think that necessarily means they'll be a bad president, or whatever. There are some things that should just be left alone because they simply don't matter.

sarah ficke
11.8.02 @ 10:33a

Russ, I thought I was the only one who remembered Biden's plagiarism scandal. It seems most of the articles I read on the man overlook that part of his history, even the less flattering articles.

No kidding. I spent the 1990's living in Delaware and reading Delaware newspapers and don't remember a peep about it. I suppose it's a case of the voters deciding that he would be more effective than the competition, despite past indiscretions. I must admit that I am more interested in his record since his election than previous to it.

michelle von euw
11.8.02 @ 12:38p

According to your website, Russ, this was the text plagiarized by Biden:

Why am I the first Kinnock in a thousand generations to be able to get to university? Why is Glenys the first woman in her family in a thousand generations to be able to get to university?

with this:

I started thinking as I was coming over here, why is it that Joe Biden is the first in his family ever to go to a university? Why is it that my wife who is sitting out there in the audience is the first in her family to ever go to college?

I can't buy that. If a politican can't say he's the first in his family to go to college (unless that's not true), then I see why good people don't want to be politicians.

sarah ficke
11.8.02 @ 12:44p

Yeah, there are only so many ways of stating something in a way that will be effective in a speech.

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