Paul Begala: Why We Need More Negative Political Ads

Top: Ronald Reagan on the offensive in '84; Bottom: Barack Obama blasts McCain and Bush.

In the basement of the Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington there is a framed picture of Harry Truman. Behind that picture there is one loose brick. Push the brick and a secret panel opens to a staircase. Descend three flights, guided only by the faint smell of gunpowder, and you will enter what is called nefastus nefastum—the unholy of unholies. In this dank and pitiless place, men and women who have not seen the sun in months hunch over computers, fueled by speed and cheap swing-state bourbon. Their mission: to master the dark art of negative advertising.

Or not. Truth is, negative advertising is not some evil or nefarious practice. In fact, when I contributed to the Obama campaign in 2008, I wrote on the check: “For Negative Ads Only.” I love negative ads. When I see a positive ad, even one from a candidate I support, my reaction often ranges from bored to annoyed. But show me a negative ad—even one against a candidate I support—and my blood starts to race. What can I say? I’d much rather eat picante sauce than chocolate.

Some of our predilection for the negative may be due to evolutionary biology. Drew Westen, a psychologist and neuroscientist at Emory University, notes that “when we were evolving, failing to pick up on negative cues could lead us to fail to escape or fight a predator.” Positive cues, on the other hand, didn’t “save us from danger in the same way.” Then there’s the fact that there are fewer forms of positive cues: “friendship, loyalty, romantic desire, and emotional attachment to kids, parents, and partners.” Negative cues, by contrast, take a wide variety of forms: “distrust, contempt, anger, hate, fear, anxiety, sadness, pity. There are just many more ways to have negative feelings toward someone.”

Negative From the Start: If we are negative by nature, we Americans are more human than most. The Founding Fathers loved going negative. Heck, the Declaration of Independence is one long negative ad. George Washington—although elected unanimously—was attacked for being too patrician and aloof, and for his support of the Jay Treaty with Britain. From there we were off to the races. Jefferson was scorched for fathering children with his slave Sally Hemings. Alexander Hamilton was called a womanizer. I’m sure the hand-wringers of our early days fretted. But the republic has endured nonetheless.

The 2012 election cycle is shaping up to be the most negative in history. Indeed, Mitt Romney won the Florida GOP primary by spending $15 million on TV ads (between his campaign and the super PACs supporting him). Kantar Media’s CMAG group, which tracks campaign ad spending, reported that of all the ads run in Florida, 0.1 percent were positive Romney spots. That is to say, only one lonely ad was pro-Romney—and that was in a foreign language (Spanish).

Among the best so far is an anti-Gingrich spot made by the pro-Romney super PAC Restore Our Future. Called “Baggage,” the ad is simple, powerful, and very effective. It shows a series of weather-beaten suitcases coming off a baggage carousel. One is labeled “Freddie Mac”—money flies out of it as the announcer talks about Newt’s deal with the mortgage giant. Another is labeled “Nancy Pelosi. Global Warming,” and opens to show photos of the ad Gingrich did with the former House speaker. Still another bag is labeled “Reprimanded. Fined,” while the announcer reminds us that Newt was the only speaker in history to be reprimanded by the House. The spot concludes with: “Newt Gingrich: Too Much Baggage.” Most Republicans, not surprisingly, have drawn the same conclusion.

Since the campaigns are hellbent on scorched earth, let me provide some guidance from a fan of the genre.

Be Factual: The most important thing about a negative ad these days is that it must stand up to scrutiny. If the ad is dishonest, it’ll come back to bite you. Case in point: in 2008, when John McCain gave an interview praising Wall Street deregulation and saying he’d like to do the same for health insurance, Barack Obama’s campaign pounced. Its attack ad was fair, factual, and devastating. The key: McCain really did say he wanted to deregulate health insurance in much the same way banking was deregulated. The Obama campaign attacked McCain relentlessly, yet few voters thought Obama had run a negative campaign. Why? Obama’s ads were factual—and the truth hurts.

Avoid Race: The Willie Horton ad is one of the most controversial negative ads of all time. The 1988 ad, made by Larry McCarthy (who is now making ads for the largest pro-Romney super PAC), helped George H.W. Bush win. But today, in the age of the Internet and instant outrage, it would explode in the candidate’s face. Then there’s Pete Wilson, who won reelection as governor of California in 1994 on the strength of an ad that showed what appeared to be undocumented aliens rushing across the California border. The ad helped save Wilson but ended the dominance of the GOP in the Golden State, where the Latino community has been solidly Democratic ever since.

Be Cinematic: By my lights, the best negative ad ever made was Ronald Reagan’s “Bear in the Woods” spot of 1984. Reagan wanted to paint Democrat Walter Mondale as too weak to stand up to the Evil Empire. Reagan’s team used cinematic imagery, metaphor, and allegory. We see a bear. He advances slowly, deliberately, as ominous music plays and a deep-voiced announcer (the ad’s creator, Hal Riney) remarks on the importance of responding to a bear with strength and resolve. At the conclusion of the spot, the bear finally stops and stands up, reaching more than eight feet tall. He confronts a man who stands his ground. After a beat the bear slumps to all fours and slowly walks away. The allegory then dissolves to a photo of Ronald Reagan with the slogan “President Reagan: Prepared for Peace.” Perfect.

Provoke Emotion: The “Daisy” ad aired only once. And we’re still talking about it 48 years later: the image of that cute little girl counting daisy petals in a meadow as the birds chirp, and then when she says “nine,” the amplified, tinny, jarring voice (with a Southern accent, oddly) drowns her out with the countdown: “three, two, one,” as the camera zooms in on the little girl’s face, then her eye, then her pupil, where we see a mushroom cloud. At the end, an announcer drives home the point: “Vote for President Johnson on Nov. 3rd. The stakes are too high for you to stay home.” Translation: vote for Lyndon Johnson—or Barry Goldwater will blow that little girl to kingdom come.

Use Damning Quotes: The 1992 Clinton-Gore campaign (full disclosure: I was a senior strategist on that campaign) never attacked George H.W. Bush personally. To do so would have backfired. We didn’t need to convince voters he was a villain—just that he was out of touch with their economic woes. Nothing made that case better than Bush’s own words. Obviously, we used his “Read my lips” pledge against him—that was a gimme. Our media gurus, Mandy Grunwald and Frank Greer, delivered the death blow in an ad that strung together a series of lesser-known but devastating Bush quotes: “30 million jobs in the next eight years.” (After four years, Bush was 29 million jobs short of his promise.) “I’m not prepared to say we’re in a recession.” “The economy is strengthening.” Then the knockout punch: the announcer asks, “If George Bush doesn’t understand the problem, how can he solve it?”

The biggest reason negative ads are so ubiquitous in politics, but much less common in commercial advertising, is this: elections present a mutually exclusive choice. It is legal to buy a can of Coke and a can of Pepsi on the same day, but you can’t vote for Obama and Romney in the same election. That mutual exclusivity pushes campaigns to frame the choice more sharply. Imagine if we had Cola Day once every four years—and you were stuck with your choice for those four years. Coke would say Pepsi makes you fat; Pepsi would counterattack that Coke makes you impotent. And they’d go downhill from there.

So the next time a public moralist starts lamenting the role of negative advertising in our political system, just explain that it’s an outgrowth of the stakes involved. As the old saying has it, politics ain’t beanbag—and a political campaign isn’t selling soft drinks. The outcome matters—and influencing it is worth every negative word or image a candidate and his team can muster.