Nasty political ads get notice
Some say that some campaigns have crossed the line.
CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR
WASHINGTON -- A taxpayer-funded call to a fantasy sex hot line. Support for using Taser weapons on 7-year-olds. Votes in Congress to deny body armor to U.S. troops in Iraq.
These are but a few of the charges leveled in campaign ads against candidates for office this fall, in what some experts say is probably the most negative U.S. election campaign in modern times.
Nasty, misleading ads have been around for decades, and it's impossible to prove empirically that the 2006 campaign tops them all, but the wave of over-the-top claims has caught the attention of both casual observers and professionals.
"Politics has always been a contact sport, but it really does feel like the rhetoric has crossed a line," says Evan Tracey, a campaign ad analyst at TNS Media Intelligence in Arlington, Va. "We've had ads with baby-crying noises from Dumpsters, Playboy mansions, criminals coming over the border creating crime and mayhem. And that's the tame stuff."
Control of Congress hangs in the balance, and in many cases, the highly negative ads are coming out of close races where strategists -- either for the campaigns or from the parties and independent groups that are trying to help -- think they will make a difference.
They can also be seen as a sign of desperation. In some cases the ads appear to work and in others they backfire, but when a candidate is trailing badly, strategists often feel there's nothing to lose. Perhaps the most talked-about ad of this cycle took shots at Rep. Harold Ford, D-Tenn., who is running for the Senate. The ad -- which ended with a blond scantily clad woman saying, "Call me" -- was perceived by some viewers as racially motivated, because Ford is black and the woman in the ad is white. If nothing else, the uproar over the ad demonstrated that sensitivities about possible racial innuendo are alive and well in American politics.
As distasteful as negative ads can be to the viewing public, many campaign experts defend them for their ability to provide useful information to voters.
"There's nothing inherently wrong with negative advertising, if it's accurate," says Brooks Jackson, a former journalist and director of the Annenberg Political Fact Check project. "A positive ad can also be inaccurate and misleading. That's political disinformation that's also a bad thing."
Often, though, negative ads contain a kernel of truth that is distorted beyond the point of fairness. Take the "fantasy hot line" ad unleashed against Michael Arcuri, D, district attorney in New York's Oneida County, who hopes to fill the seat of retiring Republican Rep. Sherwood Boehlert.
The National Republican Campaign Committee created a spot accusing Arcuri of billing taxpayers for a phone call to a sex hot line, and depicting Arcuri with the silhouette of a dancing girl. According to records released by Arcuri's campaign, the truth is that someone misdialed the hot line in a call from Arcuri's hotel room, hung up in seconds, and dialed the intended number -- the state Department of Criminal Justice Services in Albany. Arcuri's Republican opponent, state Sen. Ray Meier, also denounced the ad and called on the NRCC to pull it. Ultimately, the ad did not air on most stations in that part of New York, according to the local press.
Democrats are also producing their share of negative ads deemed unfair by watchdog groups. Jackson's group, which posts its findings at www.factcheck.org, found 11 ads by Democrats that accused Republican incumbents of voting against a 1,500 bonus for U.S. troops.
One such ad, produced by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and aired in New Mexico to support House challenger Patricia Madrid, accused her opponent of voting against the bonus (and for a congressional pay raise) -- but failed to note that the bonus would have come at the expense of reconstruction funds for Iraq. Rep. Heather Wilson, R, the incumbent, is locked in a tight race with Madrid, state attorney general.
Looking at all campaign spending for all races -- projected to come in at 2.6 billion, a record for a midterm election -- ad-watchers cannot say for certain which party is more guilty of attacks. "I would guarantee you it's equal opportunity," says Tracey. Whether negative ads drive down turnout is open to debate. But if it does, says Tracey, that's not the ads' fault. "This is America, where you've got this great right people die and bleed for. If you're going to let a bunch of silly commercials stop you from voting, it's your fault."