Turn down the volume on negative political ads

Capitol Journal

It’s hard to know whether to laugh or hit the mute button and curse.

There is humor in some of these TV ads the two Republican gubernatorial candidates have been running in an attempt to outflank each other on the right.

When Meg Whitman, for example, runs her ad that raps rival Steve Poizner with the Republican pejorative “liberal” and accuses him of supporting “taxpayer funded abortion,” opposing “the Bush tax cuts,” donating $10,000 to Al Gore in 2000 and favoring elimination of the two-thirds legislative vote requirement for budget passage, what’s a good Democrat to think?

I envision some Democrat who hasn’t been paying attention thinking that Poizner sounds like just the kind of leader California needs.

And when Poizner runs an ad claiming that “Meg Whitman and Barack Obama have the same policy on illegal immigration,” this may sound pretty exciting to some inattentive Democrats.

So it is possible to snicker at the Whitman-Poizner bloodletting by imagining that each candidate is inadvertently appealing to polar extremes on the right and the left.

And one Poizner ad is genuinely funny if you’re not in the Whitman camp. It’s the “vulture” spot, in which a winged scavenger picks at a carcass and narrators tell viewers of billionaire Whitman’s investments in alleged predator Goldman Sachs’ so-called vulture funds.

For many viewers, negative ads invoke “situational ethics,” says Allan Hoffenblum, a former Republican consultant who publishes the California Target Book, which handicaps legislative and congressional races.

“If you see a negative ad about a candidate you approve of, you react with disgust and complain, ‘That’s why people don’t go to the polls,’ ” Hoffenblum says. “However, if it’s an ad about a candidate you detest, you say, ‘It’s about time the public found out about this bastard.’”

But Hoffenblum adds: “These commercials have been awfully bad the last few weeks. They’re silly.”

And they’re basically not to be believed. Oh, there’s a sprinkling of truth here and there, but not enough to warrant any serious thought. The ads are packed with distortions and outright lies, too many to go into here. The Times has chronicled the worst examples in stories.

Everything these candidates say in their ads is deservedly tainted.

And usually intellectually insulting. Or, you’d think.

Negative ads do work wonders, of course. Always have. At least until they start to boomerang, which usually isn’t for a long time.

“While everybody hates them, they’re very effective to a point — and that point is mushy,” says Barbara O’Connor, director of the Institute for the Study of Politics and Media at Cal State Sacramento. “If you cross a line on too much negativity, people’s fairness alarm will kick in. And nobody really knows where the line is.

“You can be charging along and your poll numbers will be going up and all of a sudden pass that invisible line.”

Poizner might have crossed the line with his drumbeat of anti-illegal immigration ads, including his equating Whitman’s views with the Mexican president’s.

“The Poizner stuff just drives me up the wall,” Hoffenblum says. It reminds Latinos “why they haven’t voted Republican for the last two decades.”

Not since Republican Gov. Pete Wilson ran a pugnacious crusade against illegal immigration in winning reelection in 1994.

“Abandoning the Latino vote took Republicans from being a statewide party to being a regional party — competitive any place there aren’t any Latino voters,” Hoffenblum says.

Mark DiCamillo, director of the nonpartisan Field Poll, notes why: “Latino voters are very sympathetic with other Latinos, whether they’re here legally or not. They feel a broad brush of discrimination and sense that they may be in jeopardy if California should pass a law like Arizona’s.”

Two facts: Poizner favors the Arizona law. Whitman opposes it.

And in the Republican primary, Poizner’s railing against illegal immigration, and Whitman’s more moderate views on the re-inflamed issue helped him draw within single digits of her after having trailed by roughly 50 points. But now she’s expanding her lead again, both sides concede.

While the former EBay chief has been running a mix of positive and negative ads, Poizner’s have been practically all negative. And that means the state insurance commissioner has been derelict in promoting himself; he is mostly just pounding her.

This must be the deepest, widest sump hole of mud-slinging in the modern history of California gubernatorial primaries. It’s an attitude of win-the-nomination-at-any-cost. Literally.

Whitman has kicked in $68 million of her own fortune and raised an additional $15 million, for a total — at last count — of $83 million. Poizner is a relative pauper by comparison — spending “only” $25 million of his own money and raising another $3 million.

“They both have huge budgets. That’s why you see so many negative ads,” notes veteran Democratic ad-maker Bill Carrick.

And why do negative ads work?

“Because we live in a time when voters are extremely cynical about politics and politicians and angry at people in office,” Carrick says. “They’ll believe the worst about them.

“Even in a more positive environment, voters are more susceptible to buying negative arguments because they don’t really have a lot of faith and trust in the political process.”

Also, people are drawn naturally to the negative.

“We all love gossip,” O’Connor says. “People say to themselves, ‘My life isn’t going so well today, let’s see what’s wrong with someone else’s.’”

Moreover, things have gotten increasingly complicated and chaotic in government. Voters are looking for simple, pain-free solutions. There aren’t any.

And don’t bother looking in TV political ads. That’s not information. It’s propaganda. Hit the mute button.