Q: Do TV Attack Ads Subvert the Political Process?

By Ansolabehere, Stephen; Iyengar, Shanto et al. | Insight on the News, March 25, 1996 | Go to article overview

Q: Do TV Attack Ads Subvert the Political Process?


Ansolabehere, Stephen, Iyengar, Shanto, Faucheux, Ron, Insight on the News


Yes: They cause nonpartisan voters to skip the election entirely.

There has been no shortage of hand-wringing and outrage about the depths to which campaigns have sunk.

The rhetoric of political advertising often is vicious, strident and shallow; the candidates and their consultants are unaccountable for the kind of campaigns they have chosen to run. The toll on the electorate has been considerable. The cost of political advertising, however, is not that people cast uninformed votes or that they are tricked into voting for someone with whom they generally disagree. Rather, political advertising -- at least as it is currently practiced -- is slowly eroding the participatory ethos in America. In election after election, citizens have registered their disgust with the negativity of contemporary political campaigns by tuning out and staying home.

Take, for example, this year's lowa caucuses. With about two weeks to go, Steve Forbes launched a barrage of negative ads aimed primarily at Bob Dole. The attack erased much of Dole's once-sizable lead and raised Forbes from an "asterisk" in the early polls to 13 percent on the day of the primary. In the end, though, it was the Republican electorate that paid the real price, as turnout in the caucuses reached a record low.

Or take the case of New York in 1992, when Republican Sen. Alfonse D'Amato defended his turf with a barrage of attacks against his Democratic challenger, Robert Abrams. "Abrams never met a tax he didn't like -- except his own." Abrams demanded a $6 million a year luxury office suite." During the final month of the campaign, D'Amato aired 18 separate advertisements in the state; 12 of them attacked Abrams. Abrams perished by the sword but also had lived by it. He had beaten Geraldine Ferraro and Liz Holtzman in a nasty three-way race for the Democratic nomination, and he slammed D'Amato relentlessly as "Senator Sleaze" and for allowing "his office to be systematically misused for personal gain."

In the end, it was the New York electorate that paid the price. Only 43 percent of the voting-age population (fully 8 percent less than the national average) decided to vote in the 1992 New York Senate election. Of those who did go to the polls, 430,000 cast a ballot for one of the presidential candidates but couldn't stomach voting for either D'Amato or Abrams.

Then there was New Jersey in 1988. The Senate contest between Republican Rep. Peter Dawkins and Democratic Sen. Frank Lautenberg started harmlessly, with Dawkins spending nearly $2 million on a feel-good ad in which he proclaimed his admiration and devotion to New Jersey. After Labor Day, the defoliants hit the Garden State. Lautenberg's first advertisement replayed the audio part of Dawkin's feel-good commercial. "I've lived in a lot of places. But ... I never found a single place that has as good people or as much promise as I've found right here in our Garden State." Meanwhile, the video displays, in bold letters, "Be real, Pete."

Dawkins quickly went into the dirt as well, alleging that Lautenberg "personally pocketed tens of thousands of dollars trading stocks of companies that do business with the government. He'll deny anything to get elected. As long as he can make some money on the side." Then, from Lautenberg, the voters heard that Dawkins "misled us about when he moved here. His campaign lied about his being wounded in Vietnam. He's a hypocrite because he's financed by polluters.... He'll move anywhere, say anything to get elected." And so went the months of September and October in New Jersey.

On Election Day, the voters told the candidates what they thought. Lautenberg won, but turnout was down sharply. In fact, 120,000 New Jersey voters -- 6 percent of those who went to the polls -- cast ballots for president but chose to leave the Senate column blank.

From Alabama to Wyoming, New York to California -- across the country -- candidates have taken the "attack-dog" tenor, and their bark has kept many voters away from the polls. …

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