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Going Negative Not a Positive Way to Get Votes

Going Negative Not a Positive Way to Get Votes

by Walter Brasch

During the final debate last week, Barack Obama called John McCain on the negative ads, saying that 100 percent of his radio and TV ads were negative. Not true, replied McCain. True, according to the Advertising Project at the University of Wisconsin. Almost every ad in a one-week period before the debate was negative.

The nonpartisan analysts determined that between June 4 and October 4, "47 percent of the McCain spots were negative (completely focused on Obama), 26 percent were positive (completely focusing on his own personal story or on his issues or proposals) and 27 percent were contrast ads (a mix of positive and negative messages)." The Project also noted that only about 35 percent of Obama’s ads are negative, about 39 percent are positive, and about 25 percent are contrast ads.

However, McCain’s campaign also rightly points out that Obama has spent far more on negative ads than has McCain. That’s because Obama has bought far more TV ad time than McCain. The Campaign Media Analysis Group, an independent research company, reports Obama during the final weeks of the campaign is outspending McCain by four to one. By the election, Obama will have spent more than $200 million in the three months after the Democratic convention.

An Ipsos public affairs poll released a few days after the final debate reveals that 57 percent of voters said the negative ads aren’t effective. Unless a candidate has a strong positive message outlining what he or she believes and is willing to push if elected, negative ads may also have a backlash effect as voters see only the dirt being thrown.

Sens. Norman Coleman (R-Minn.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) are among leading Republicans who have attacked the McCain attack ads. "They don't serve John McCain well," said Collins, co-chair of McCain’s Maine campaign. She said the ads, especially an automated telephone "robocall" that ties Obama to radicals, "does not reflect the kind of leader that he [McCain] is." McCain’s negative ad campaign was also one of the reasons why Colin Powell--chairman of the joint chiefs of staff under George H.W. Bush, secretary of state under George W. Bush--crossed party lines three weeks before the election to endorse Obama.

Another negative arises with the use of negative ads. With voters being bombarded with radio, TV, Internet, and direct mail ads, the effect isn't so much an additive effect--the more ads, the better the possibility of retention--but a subtractive effect--voters aren’t even paying attention. If they do, it's solely to names, with name recognition often overriding political issues. Thus, if a negative TV ad mentions an opponent twice as many times, the voter comprehends the name, not the message; the brain may be subconsciously processing names, as it does when confronted by thousands of lawn signs and billboards, with the most mentions leading to a vote.

Whatever else the McCain campaign does in the next three weeks, there is one reality--the overwhelming placement of negative ads on TV reveals a campaign that not only is desperate for votes but also sliding even further from election.


[Walter Brasch’s latest book is the second edition of Sinking the Ship of State: The Presidency of George W. Bush (October 2008), available through,, and other bookstores. You may contact Brasch at or through his website at: Brasch is president of the Pennsylvania Press Club and professor of journalism at Bloomsburg University.]

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