You May Not Like It, But Going Negative Works

When Newt Gingrich told ABC in December that "politics has become a really nasty, vicious, negative business," he hadn't realized those were the "halcyon days" of these primaries, TIME's Michael Duffy said during a "Delve Into '12" event Friday, noting that in December only half the political ads running on television were negative.

The week before the Jan. 31 Florida primary, 92 percent of them were.

While that may be bad news for individual candidates, is it bad for America? At New America's Delve Into '12 launch event "Daisy and the Art of Going Nuclear: Negative Advertising in Our Politics," journalists, ad execs, and opposition researchers mulled the topic, giving some perspective on the current trends and even offering President Obama and GOP hopefuls a little advice.

Ken Goldstein, president of the Campaign Media Analysis Group, who analyzes political advertising for a living and provided that 92 percent figure, thinks negative advertising gets unfairly vilified. The vast majority of the scholarship shows negative advertising works -- meaning it informs and mobilizes people, he said. "On average, negative ads are more likely to be factually correct and talk about issues."

That statement may seem counterintuitive to voters who see candidates alternately tearing each other down with sensationalistic televisions spots, but Robert Mann, author of "Daisy Petals and Mushroom Clouds" concurred. "A lot more lies are told in positive ads than in negative ads,” he said.

Michael Rejebian and Alan Huffman, opposition researchers and authors of the new book "We're With Nobody," described their role in the creation of ads and supported the assertions that candidates' negative ads are generally factually correct.

"We don’t give anything to a campaign that can’t be documented," Rejebian said. "Without the things we do, you’d have less documented factual info."

(For more on fact-checking in political campaigns, join us on Feb. 28 for our second Delve Into '12 event "The Facts of (Political) Life")

Much media coverage of political advertising this cycle has focused on the impact of the Citizens United decision and ad buys by SuperPACs. There is, the panelists agreed, a marked difference between ads from candidates and ads aired on behalf of candidates by interest groups and SuperPACs.  New Yorker writer Jane Mayer, who recently profiled "Willie Horton" ad creator Larry McCarthy for the magazine, said, "The dirtiest ads are the ones from outside groups" to give candidates some cover.

Atlantic editor Garance Franke-Ruta agreed that SuperPAC ads "tend to be much more negative."

But Goldstein countered the popular perception that SuperPACs are tipping the scales in favor of one party, noting that while GOP groups outspent Democratic groups in the last round of House races, Democratic candidates outspent GOP candidates. In the end, overall spending was fairly even, he said.

While it was generally acknowledged that "going negative" worked in political races, it is a tactic almost never seen in the commercial realm.

Michael Hughes, president of The Martin Agency, explained that brands and companies have to build up long-term good will. Politicians are targeting people who have to make a binary choice on one day, while "companies need to focus on longevity," he said.

Deutsch New York's Jayme Maultasch added that in the business world, there are more legal concerns to be aware of.

In the past, the commercial and political advertising worlds used to mix more often, with some of the top agencies working on national campaigns. Now, they are more separate, for a range of reasons. But there are still lessons they can learn from each other. Maulstasch noted that he is "blown away" by the speed at which political ads can be created and disseminated, but expressed surprise by the lack of consistent and strong branding from the current GOP candidates.

"It is sorely missing. There is no longer-term thinking."

"Willie Horton" ad screenshot courtesy Museum of the Moving Image