Negative Campaign Ads (10-28-06)

The campaign ad by Connecticut: Representative Rob Simmons, a Republican, pointing  out his challenger’s lack of service (upper left)  accompanied the New York Time’s Adam Nagourney ‘s September 27, 2006  story, “Theme of Campaign Ads: Don’t Be Nice,”  

You’d think a party whose leader, George Bush, has a questionable military service record, would stay away from attacking Democrats on this issue, but, then again, consider the swift boating of John Kerry, or even worse the ad questioning the patriotism  of triple-amputee Vietnam vet Max Cleland in the 2002 Senate race.

On September 27, Nagourney wrote,

For Republicans, it was the leading edge of a wave of negative advertisements against Democratic candidates, the product of more than a year of research into the personal and professional backgrounds of Democratic challengers.

He wrote chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) Representative Thomas M. Reynolds (R_NY)  had investigators looking into prospective Democratic challengers since the summer of 2005. He has 

 long believed that it would be this kind of information about Democratic challengers and not voter opinion on, say, President Bush or the war in Iraq that would determine whether Republicans held Congress this year.

 Reynolds, whose name you will remember from the Foley page scandal, said, 

These candidates have been out there doing other things — they have never seen anything like this before.

We haven’t even begun to unload this freight train.

According to Nagourney,  Reynolds burst out laughing when asked why he was not using more positive advertisements.

If they moved things to the extent that negative ads move things, there would be more of them.

According to William Bike’s  2004 article  “Negative Campainging.”

Campaigns & Elections reported that Cathy Allen, president of Campaign Connection of Seattle, indicated that going negative might be the proper course when taking on an incumbent, when the opponent is outspending the candidate by large margins, when there is irrefutable information that the opponent has done something wrong, and when the candidate has little name recognition.


Yesterday, the Annenberg Center’s Fact Check Project published a a piece that confirmed my gut feelings that the Republicans are even more negative than the Democrats.  Brooks Jackson, Viveca Novak, Justin Bank, James Ficaro and Emi Kolawole in   “The NRCC attack-ad factory grinds out some smears we find to be misleading or false.”    found that while negative ads from the  Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC)  

 generally attack Republican candidates on policy issues or their performance in office – accusing them of casting votes favorable to drug or oil companies, or of supporting President Bush’s unpopular policies in Iraq or on Social Security…. NRCC’s ads, which are much more likely to demean an opponent’s character. That’s the very definition of political mudslinging.

The Republican ads variously accuse Democratic candidates of such things as charging an “adult fantasy” phone call to taxpayers, of being a “hypocrite,” of being a “greedy trial lawyer,” of being a “millionaire know-it-all,” or of failing to pay local business taxes on time. One ad describes a Democrat’s “ethical judgments” as “bad to bizarre” and claims he favored use of 50,000-volt Taser weapons on seven-year-olds.

A derogatory ad can be accurate,…. [but]  several of the NRCC’s ads are smears that twist facts or ignore them. A sheriff running for the House is accused of having “fixed” a speeding ticket for his daughter, for example, when in fact the ticket was paid and the daughter got no special treatment. We found repeated examples of this sort of thing, and we detail them here.

The project found the pattern of deceptive and unfounded personal allegations contained in this year’s NRCC ads  to be

one we judge to be truly remarkable

The Republican negative to positive ratio is higher than that for the Democrats.  Both parties are spending the majority on television ads.

According to the Federal Election Commission, so far in this election cycle the NRCC has spent  $41.9 million attacking Democratic opponents and $5 million supporting its own candidates, roughly an 8:1 negative-to-positive ratio. The DCCC has spent $18 million and $3.1 million, respectively, for a 5:1 ratio.

Fact Check obtained copies from the  Campaign Media Analysis Group (CMAG) of all ads by each group ran since Labor Day in the top 101 television markets (87 per cent of American TV viewers.)

 Of the 115 NRCC ads, we judged 91 per cent to be purely negative.  The DCCC’s 104 ads included 81 per cent we found to be purely negative.We found very few on either side that were all positive, but the DCCC’s contained more mixed or “comparative” ads  –a mix of positive statements about the supported candidate and negative statements about the opponent.

What stood out in the NRCC’s ads was a pronounced tendency to be petty and personal, and sometimes careless with the facts. We found 29 of the NRCC’s ads to be assaults of a personal nature on a candidate’s character or private professional dealings, rather than critiques of his or her views or votes while in federal, state or local office. Applying the same screen to the DCCC, we came up with 15 such ads, and several of those were comparative, rather than purely negative. We’d note, and leave for our readers to judge its relevance, that since there are more GOP incumbents than Democratic ones, the Republicans’ opponents may be individuals who don’t have voting records to attack.

I was watching C-Span televise a panel from the Campaign Finance Institute   (resources) on how the courts interpreted  campaign finance laws to  allow unlimited giving by political parties as long as the ads are not coordinated with the campaign.  This allows candidates to disavow the negative ads, as was the case when on NRCC spot attacked New York Democrat Michael Acuri for billing taxpayers for a call to a “fantasy hotline”  as reported October 21 by Mark Weiner in this Post-Standard story, ” Sex-call spot is called a new low.”

Fact Check found

The ad is laden with sexual innuendo. A woman’s voice says “Hi sexy, you’ve reached the live one on one fantasy line.” Arcuri is pictured appearing to leer as the silhouette of a woman undulates suggestively in the background.

“The phone number to an adult fantasy hotline appeared on Michael Arcuri’s New York City hotel room bill while he was there on official business,” the announcer says. “Who calls a fantasy hotline and then bills taxpayers? Michael Arcuri.”

The facts of this case paint a much different picture. The phone records indeed show a call to the number of an adult fantasy talk service at 3:26 p.m. on Jan. 28, 2004, but the very next minute – 3:27 p.m. – the records show another number was dialed. The second number was identical except for the three-digit area code, and was the number of the New York State Department of Criminal Justice Services. It was Sean Byrne, executive director of the New York Prosecutors Training Institute, who made both calls, according to Arcuri and Byrne. Both were attending a meeting of the New York State District Attorneys Association. The hotel’s charge for the misdialed “fantasy” line call was $1.25.

An produced ad accuses Arcuri of freeing an accused rapist whom he “failed to indict him in time,”  according to Ad Watch: Arcuri 1995 Rape Prosecution ,” Observer-Dispatch. 12 Oct. 2006.

[T] the scheduled indictment hearing couldn’t go forward because the 13-year-old victim didn’t appear and a key witness had been admitted to a psychiatric facility. The ad doesn’t mention that the accused man was indicted several days later. His freedom lasted eight days. Eventually he pleaded guilty to a reduced charge (Arcuri’s case was weakened because the young victim was reluctant to cooperate) and was sentenced to 18 months to 3 years behind bars. The same ad says the “percentage of felony convictions” in Oneida County, where Arcuri is district attorney, “has fallen dramatically since 1998.” That’s false, according to our calculations from statistics available  from New York State’s Division of Criminal Justice Services. In 1998, 88.1 percent of felonies prosecuted in the county resulted in convictions. In 2005, it was 90.3. That’s an increase of 2.2 percentage points, not a decrease, much less a dramatic one.


Here are  other sample ads, along with Fact Check’s critiques:

An NRCC ad in Arizona called Democratic candidate Gabrielle Giffords “a hypocrite on taxes.”

It says she falsely claims to favor tax cuts, when in fact she supports repealing some of the tax cuts Republicans gave to corporations and wealthy individuals. She does favor extending “middle class” tax breaks such as a deduction for college tuition.

An NRCC ad in Iowa  characterizes Democratic candidate Bruce Braley as a “greedy trial lawyer .”

The ad complains that he “supported the suit for a woman spilling hot coffee on her lap.” But the famous lawsuit against McDonald’s was actually more substantial than late-night comics made it out to be. Stella Leibeck, the 79-year-old plaintiff, suffered third-degree burns over 6 per cent of her body, spent eight days in the hospital and required skin grafts, and McDonald’s served its coffee at a scalding 180 and 190 degrees Fahrenheit, much hotter than coffee served at home.

An NRCC ad in Wisconsin refers to  Democrat Steve Kagen as “Dr. Millionaire,” and one even calls him “Dr. Millionaire Know-It-All .”

Kagen is certainly a prosperous physician. But if being a millionaire disqualifies somebody from serving in the House of Representatives a slew of members will have to resign – 136, to be precise, or almost one-third, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Eighty-seven of them are Republicans, versus 49 Democrats. The “know-it-all” line refers to Kagen’s desire to scrap President Bush’s Medicare prescription drug benefit for one  of his own design.

The NRCC ads also say Dr. Kagen  “took legal action against eighty former patients.”

 Kagen hired a collection agency that took a total of 80 patients to small claims court for arbitration of unpaid bills, but that was over the course of a 25-year career in which Kagen estimates he has seen 50,000 patients. Kagen says the agency deemed them all able to pay.

A NRCC ad in North Carolina says of Democratic candidate Heath Shuler, “He’s been caught again not paying his taxes on time.”

The unpaid taxes weren’t “his” and payment wasn’t his responsibility. The delinquent taxes were the fault of businessmen who bought a real-estate brokerage from Shuler and his brother in 2003. It’s true that The Associated Press  found  that the brokerage, which still bears Shuler’s name, owed $69,000 and had been chronically behind in paying local taxes, but  Shuler at that point retained only a minority interest and no management chores. The taxes and penalties were paid after Shuler’s lawyer threatened to sue the current managers if they didn’t, according to The AP.

An NRCC ad in Ohio includes a charge that Democratic Challenger John Cranley “voted to allow children as young as seven to be tased. Seven-year-olds, taxed! With 50,000 volts of electricity.”

Cincinnati  police regulations  already permit use of the X26 Taser, designed as a non-lethal weapon to incapacitate rather than kill, to subdue resisting suspects between the ages of 7 and 70. The ad refers to Cranley’s vote on the Cincinnati City Council against raising that age minimum to 10. The Council voted 5-4 against raising the age after opponents cited concerns that batons or pepper spray would be more likely to harm a resisting subject.

An NRCC ad in Indiana accuses the Democratic challenger Brad Ellsworth of trying to get his daughter’s speeding ticket “dismissed” because of his position as sheriff of an adjoining town.

The ticket was paid. The prosecutor alleging that Ellsworth sought special treatment is a Republican who broached the issue for the first time in mid-October, a year and a half after the fact, and who  says he  does not recall Ellsworth’s exact words. Ellsworth says he was seeking to get his daughter into an existing program that allowed first-time offenders to keep their driving records clean in return for paying higher fines. In any event, the prosecutor said his daughter did not qualify and the ticket stood.


CMAG’s services are by subscription, but you can look at a May 2006 snapshot campaign ads by topic in that month’s Grid and gives you an idea of some of the ad sponsors, such as the “Campaign for Affordable Energy” and the “Center for Moral Clarity.”  You can also read that month’s magazine, The Eye.




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