Negative Campaign Ads Effective Ploy : Politics: Strategy works because it resonates with Americans’ distrust of politicians, experts say.
When President Gerald Ford’s strategists feared that only a politically explosive gambit could salvage the 1976 presidential election, they crafted a television commercial that was--well, explosive --literally as well as figuratively. In fact, too explosive.
At the closing session of a three-day conference on presidential politics at UC San Diego, former Ford adviser Doug Bailey’s recollection of the ad--so controversial that it never appeared in its original form--served as a case study on the knotty strategic elements that shape commercials in White House campaigns.
As Bailey recounted the story, Ford’s aides felt in the final weeks of the 1976 race that, though he had closed to within striking distance of Democrat Jimmy Carter after once trailing by more than 30 percentage points in some polls, something dramatic had to happen for him to overtake Carter.
Consequently, Bailey began developing a five-minute TV ad, known within political circles as “the cherry bomb spot,” intended to dramatize the campaign’s major message that Ford had helped the nation “turn the corner” from the past decade’s political turmoil--assassinations, Vietnam and Watergate.
To jar voters into confronting those distasteful memories, Bailey selected a risky, evocative image: footage from a Ford rally where a prankster’s firecracker caused a visibly shaken Ford and the Secret Service to react as if the President, who had survived two earlier assassination attempts, now faced a third. The script accompanying the tape was just as shocking, saying at one point: “When the President can parade openly in a car in Dallas, there’s a new spirit in the country.”
Ultimately, Ford’s other strategists rejected that part of the ad, fearing that it would cost him Texas--which he lost anyway--but also because Carter’s lead had continued to shrink, causing them to be less willing to, in Bailey’s words, “roll the dice.”
More often, however, Bailey and his colleagues do “roll the dice” with the high-stakes 30-second TV commercials, an increasingly pivotal component in presidential races, and one that the consultants agreed has taken a sharply negative turn in the past decade.
Negative campaign commercials not only have become more common, but also are increasingly effective in presidential elections because they resonate with Americans’ distrust of politicians and are simply easier to craft than positive ads, the strategists said.
“Most voters think that all politicians are sleazebags,” said Carter aide Greg Schneiders. “To say, ‘My opponent is a sleazebag,’ is to hit a responsive chord. To say, ‘I am not a sleazebag,’ takes some convincing.”
The constraints of 30-second ads, which Bailey argued should be limited to a single point, combined with the maxim that voters can be more easily persuaded to oppose one candidate than to vote for another, have encouraged the shift toward negative political advertising.
“One good point for somebody is not going to make him president,” Bailey said. “One bad point against somebody is enough to rule him out.”
Another contributing factor, in the eyes of Michael Deaver, the so-called “image guru” of the Ronald Reagan Administration, is the bland choices available to voters in many elections, causing the races to be determined primarily on the basis of “who you’re going to vote against.”
While the consultants’ consensus was that the growing negativity of campaign ads lowers voter turnout by exacerbating Americans’ disenchantment with politics, they acknowledged trying to capitalize on the tactical advantages afforded by that trend. By carefully targeting particularly caustic ads in certain regions, overall turnout there can be “driven down,” dramatically influencing an election’s outcome, they said.
Though political commercials are widely derided for their lack of substantive content, the campaign specialists argued that closer examination of some of the more notable ads from past presidential races reveals powerful, though often subtle, messages to voters.
Most voters use television ads to make character judgments about presidential candidates, rather than to carefully scrutinize their issue-by-issue stands or even weigh the nominees’ philosophy against their own, the consultants and former campaign managers said. The most effective ads, they argued, are those that either positively reinforce voters’ faith in candidates or raise doubts about their character and overall fitness for the presidency.
During the 1988 campaign, for example, a campaign ad for George Bush showed the by-now familiar, politically embarrassing videotape of Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis riding in a tank, wearing a helmet with the chin strap attached--looking, as NBC news commentator John Chancellor said earlier in the conference, “like the cover of Mad Magazine.”
“In television, you’re (conveying) symbols,” Bailey said. “Michael Dukakis in the tank in the helmet with the strap is a symbol, a symbol of the mismatch of that man (and the presidency).”
One of the most successful positive “character ads” cited by the consultants was Reagan’s 1984 “Morning in America” commercial, which featured alternately patriotic and picturesque shots of smiling Americans--a variation of the “Feeling Good about America” spots used by Ford eight years earlier in which a catchy jingle amplified the upbeat mood.
“There’s a lot of content in reminding people that they feel better about their country today than they did four years ago,” former Carter aide Schneiders said. “That’s enormous content.”
Noting that the 30-second ads are more the reality of commercial television than the choice of political consultants or candidates, the strategists emphasized that, occasionally, efforts to break that mold have produced startling successes.
Robert Finch, one of Richard Nixon’s top advisers, explained that, in 1968, his strategists “wiped out the Nixon the loser thing"--the result of his earlier presidential and gubernatorial defeats--in part by staging hourlong television programs in which Nixon answered unrehearsed questions from demographically balanced studio audiences. His facile performance in those programs, Finch said, was a major ingredient in the evolution of the “new Nixon” image presented to voters that year.
Several potential changes governing campaign advertising also were debated by the strategists and political scientists at Saturday’s session. One dealt with proposed federal legislation that would require candidates to personally appear in any ad attacking their opponent--a plan that, among other difficulties, faces constitutional questions regarding freedom of speech guarantees.
Former Reagan insider Deaver, meanwhile, suggested that the dialogue in presidential races could be enhanced by requiring television networks to allocate two hours of air time weekly between Labor Day and the election to the campaign.
At least part of that time, Deaver argued, should be devoted to the candidates debating each other in the House of Representatives, with congressmen firing challenging questions to the other party’s nominee--a format that he contends would give voters a better glimpse at the candidates’ performance under pressure and their agendas.
The three-day UCSD conference ended with some of the consultants forecasting the type of TV commercials likely to be seen in next year’s presidential campaign.
President Bush could build an effective strategy, Bailey argued, around an “Isn’t this an exciting time?” theme focusing on the epochal changes in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union that urges voters to help him make similarly dramatic transformations in this country in areas such as education and health care.
A predictable counterpunch from the Democratic nominee, whomever that might be, Schneiders said, could pose the question: “What does George Bush have in common with Mikhail Gorbachev?” The answer would be that while both have demonstrated their skills on the international stage, both also preside over crumbling infrastructures within their own countries.
Bailey, however, had one final prediction.
“If George Bush adopts the (recommended) program, it doesn’t matter what the other candidate does,” Bailey concluded.