Nov 1, 2006

Positively negative

While sipping my morning coffee, I watched an interview of Maryland gubernatorial candidate Martin O'Malley on one of our local TV stations. The interviewer asked about the "negative" ads GOP Governor Robert Ehrlich was running against O'Malley, the current mayor of Baltimore. O'Malley opined that he'd rather be running on his vision for the future than focusing on attacks on his record.

To paraphrase the great Ronald Reagan: Here we go again.

It's obvious to me--and, I think, to any sentient being--that a candidate's record in office should be a pretty good indicator of his future performance. Both Ehrlich and O'Malley are running ads attacking their opponent's record. This is a good thing, in my view. And now a social scientist has validated that.

Andrew Ferguson has the details.
There's a saying among political consultants popularized by the Republican ad man Mike Murphy: The difference between a positive ad and a negative ad is that the negative ad has a fact in it.

This bit of folk wisdom has recently found academic support. In an original and thoroughly refreshing book published early this year, "In Defense of Negativity," the Vanderbilt University political scientist John Geer undertook a definitive survey of negative advertising.

The poor man viewed almost every presidential-campaign television commercial aired since 1964, positive and negative alike, and arrived at an unexpected conclusion: The negative ads were better.

Being an academic, Mr. Geer had to define "better" with some precision. He had four criteria to distinguish good ads from bad. The best ads discuss pertinent political issues, have a relatively high degree of specificity, rely on documentation to make their point, and raise questions that the public itself considers important.

By each measure, the negative ads scored higher than the positive ads. We have long known that negative ads usually "work" in the elemental sense of helping to elect the candidate who airs them. Now it turns out that negative ads work for self-government too.

"The demands of attack ads are different from positive ads," Mr. Geer says. "The threshold is higher. You need documentation and support. If a candidate just attacks, without documentation to back it up, it rebounds against the attacker and he looks like a fool."

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