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Ads Charge Opponents with Loose Morals, Fiscal Failures and Perversion

October 27, 2006 at 6:25 PM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: Now, a Choices ’06 glance at the latest in the negatives. Jeffrey Brown has our Media Unit report.

JEFFREY BROWN: With Election Day less than two weeks away, the airwaves have been electric with advertising and charged with a decidedly negative current. This week, ads themselves became the news.

In Tennessee’s Senate race, where Democrat Harold Ford, an African-American, is neck and neck with Republican Bob Corker, an ad using what appeared to be man-in-the-street interviews caused a storm.

WOMAN IN BOB CORKER AD: Harold Ford looks nice. Isn’t that enough? Terrorists need their privacy.

MAN IN BOB CORKER AD: When I die, Harold Ford will let me pay taxes again.

MAN IN BOB CORKER AD: Ford’s right: I do have too many guns.

WOMAN IN BOB CORKER AD: I met Harold at the Playboy party.

WOMAN IN BOB CORKER AD: I’d love to pay higher marriage taxes.

MAN IN BOB CORKER AD: Canada can take care of North Korea. They’re not busy.

MAN IN BOB CORKER AD: So he took money from porn movie producers. I mean, who hasn’t?

MAN IN BOB CORKER AD: The Republican National Committee is responsible for the content of this advertising.

WOMAN IN BOB CORKER AD: Harold, call me.

JEFFREY BROWN: The ad was denounced by Democrats and the NAACP as thinly veiled race-baiting. Corker distanced himself from the spot, and the Republican National Committee, which had funded the ad, claimed it had no power to pull it since it was produced and run by an independent group.

Yesterday, Ford issued a response to the ad and to a second one, which had contended he favored giving abortion pills to children.

HAROLD FORD ANNOUNCER: The ads for Corker attacking Harold Ford? Despicable, rotten lies.

REV. HUNTER HUCKABAY: They have attacked Harold’s faith, and it is disgraceful.

MAURA SATCHELL: My son’s life is on the line in Iraq, and they’re putting out these ads just to distract us.

REP. HAROLD FORD (D), Candidate for U.S. Senate: I’m Harold Ford, Jr., and now they’ve attacked my faith, said I’m for gay marriage, when I voted against it, for giving schoolgirls abortion pills. All of it lies.

Here’s what I believe: in God, in you, and a new direction. That’s why I approve this message.

JEFFREY BROWN: In Missouri, where a ballot measure on stem cell research has become a key issue in the Senate race between Democrat Claire McCaskill and Republican incumbent Jim Talent, a celebrity ad war broke out. One ad featured actor Michael J. Fox, who suffers from Parkinson’s disease.

MICHAEL J. FOX, ACTOR/ACTIVIST: As you might know, I care deeply about stem cell research. In Missouri, you can elect Claire McCaskill, who shares my hope for cures.

Unfortunately, Senator Jim Talent opposes expanding stem cell research. Senator Talent even wanted to criminalize the science that gives us a chance for hope. They say all politics is local, but that’s not always the case. What you do in Missouri matters to millions of Americans, Americans like me.

CLAIRE MCCASKILL (D), Candidate for U.S. Senate: I’m Claire McCaskill, and I approve this message.

JEFFREY BROWN: That ad gained national notice when conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh mocked FOX on his popular syndicated program.

RUSH LIMBAUGH, CONSERVATIVE RADIO HOST: He is moving all around and shaking, and it’s…

JEFFREY BROWN: An independently funded ad featuring athletes and actors opposed to stem cell research then went up in response to the Fox spot.

JEFF SUPPAN, Baseball Player: Amendment 2 claims it bans human cloning, but in the 2,000 words you won’t read, it makes cloning a constitutional right. Don’t be deceived.

KURT WARNER, Football Player: Californians agreed to spend $6 billion on the exact same science. Now they admit there won’t be any cures for at least 15 years. Same science, $6 billion, no cures. Beware of loopholes. Missourians will pay. Don’t be tricked.

JEFFREY BROWN: All in all around the nation this week, from allegations of corruption in Montana…

JON TESTER (D), Candidate for U.S. Senate: This won’t get me contributions from Jack Abramoff…

JEFFREY BROWN: … to charges of sexism in Virginia.

WOMAN IN GEORGE ALLEN AD: Mr. Webb’s viewpoints absolutely showed disrespect towards women.

Smear ads navigate murky waters

JEFFREY BROWN: Even where ads weren't making national news, local airwaves took a negative turn.

And we look at the ad wars with Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of

Pennsylvania, and Evan Tracey, founder of the Campaign Media Analysis Group, a non-partisan media research firm that tracks political and public affairs advertising.

Kathleen Hall Jamieson, first that ad aimed at Harold Ford in Tennessee, who was being targeted and how do you read the message?

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON, Annenberg Public Policy Center: Well, you know who Harold Ford thinks is being targeted by his response. He thinks that those who attend church regularly -- and they are more likely to be voters -- are the target. And so his rebuttal essentially affirms his faith in God and in the people and then takes on those issues that challenge faith-based voters to vote against him.

JEFFREY BROWN: Evan Tracy, this issue of who made the ad and its relationship to the campaign, explain that to us.

EVAN TRACEY, Chief Operating Officer, TNSMI/CMAG: Well, this is where we are in sort of the post-McCain-Feingold world. Essentially, the RNC funds independent groups that use RNC money to make advertisements, but the RNC, or the chairman of the RNC, doesn't control that because he talks to the candidates, therefore opening himself up to the charge that he's coordinating. That's the dirty word in the campaigns, is coordination.

JEFFREY BROWN: No coordination allowed?

EVAN TRACEY: No coordination allowed. But what you see in Tennessee is the classic bad cop, good cop strategy. In other words, if you look at most of the ads that the Corker campaign has run in October, they're largely positive. They've got Fred Thompson talking about his biography, his wife, his kids.

But however, you've got the ads being run by the party committees that are extremely negative and hard-hitting, like the ones

you showed in your piece.

JEFFREY BROWN: You say coordination is the key. Quasi-independent, does anyone know?

EVAN TRACEY: Well, they coordinate by looking at each other's data. In other words, they know the messages that the other campaign has on. But the party committees, they're not on the ballot, so they can basically run the negative ads. It leaves the candidates free to say, "I'm independent. This isn't my campaign." And they basically stay above the fray while the parties go in there and really do the hard-hitting stuff.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, Kathleen, is all of that confusing -- it is confusing, I think, to viewers and voters.

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: Less confusing than some, because this ad includes the statement, "The Republican National Committee is responsible for this ad." The ads that are really confusing are those that use pseudonymous labels, "Americans for Clean Air," or "National Security Political Action Committee," and you have no idea who those people are.

The timing of attack ads

JEFFREY BROWN: Kathleen, staying with you, the national attention that this one drew, what explains that to you?

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: There are some ads that seem created to attract news. They're controversial; they're visual; they have a strong narrative line. And they get a lot of their impact out of news airing. I think that's one of the intents of this ad.

And we've seen some historically that have actually gotten most of their impact that way. That was true of the daisy commercial in '64, the Willie Horton commercials in '88, and the early Swift Vets ads of 2004.

JEFFREY BROWN: You mean made deliberately to get this kind of attention?

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: If it wasn't made deliberately, it certainly did a good job of accomplishing that objective.

JEFFREY BROWN: What do you think about that, Evan?

EVAN TRACEY: Well, Kathleen's right. I mean, what the independent groups can do and then the parties in some cases is, you know, they can use sharper edges than the campaigns want to use. They get message points where the campaigns themselves can't necessarily go in this direction.

You know, Swift Boats is a great example. The George Bush campaign could have never challenged John Kerry on his military record. But a group like the Swift Boat Veterans can do it, and obviously, from a message standpoint, that helps the campaign.

So you're independent, but the strategy is pretty clear: It's put a message out there that's going to resonate with reporters and with voters, but the campaign gets to stay hands-off.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, Kathleen, move us to Missouri. Why stem cells and why celebrities?

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: Well, there's an amendment on the ballot, and as a result voters are going to have to vote on that issue. And so McCaskill is making it an issue in the campaign, as well.

And what you have here is an interesting moment, because there are times in which attack ads can actually differentiate in important ways. This is one of those moments; this is an important issue. And if news now comes in and explains the differences and similarities, goes to the experts, talks about the national debate, this could actually be an informing moment for the American electorate.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, Evan, who do you see these ads playing to? Who are they targeting?

EVAN TRACEY: Well, it's a vintage wedge strategy. It's intentional that you have Michael J. Fox come on with two weeks to go.

He's a celebrity. He attracts a lot of attention to the issue. This is an issue that's showing up in a lot of races around the country. It's an issue that really -- it helps undecided voters make up their mind. And that's sort of the "handle with care" here issue for clearly the Talent campaign when they respond, because they're not only running against Claire McCaskill right now. If you're behind in the polls, you're running against the calendar.

So the later these ads come out, the more attention they draw. It's very hard for campaigns to recover and get back on message as we head to Election Day.

Dirty ads: rouse or repress voters?

JEFFREY BROWN: And yet, Kathleen, this one became national, as well. Now, is that Rush Limbaugh or why did that happen?

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: It is, in large part, Rush Limbaugh, because Michael J. Fox has made ads before, and as a result there wasn't much news in this news, although he looks as if the illness is impeding him more now than in the former ads. But when Rush Limbaugh takes this ad on, it creates controversy. And when his Web cam has caught him imitating Michael J. Fox, that was irresistible to news.

JEFFREY BROWN: Evan, this broad turn to the negative -- I mean, we always are told that campaigns go negative because it works. That's the line. But how does it work? In what ways does it work?

EVAN TRACEY: Well, it has an impact on the race really in three ways. One is, again, it drives people away from -- if they're not going to vote for something, they're going to vote against something. The negative advertising is a way to really differentiate.

I mean, voters, you know, they say they don't like it, but you can also tell at the polls that, when you get exit polls, they're repeating the same charges that were in the negative ads.

So clearly they watch them, and it also can have an impact on undecided voters by essentially having them get too confused to go vote. In other words, what happens in these races, one side goes negative; the other side goes negative; the races stay essentially negative until the end. And a lot of undecided voters get to this, "I can't tell. A pox on both their houses. I won't vote." And, you know, that controls turnout, and the parties' strategists are essentially looking at the last turnout to figure out what they need to get in this election.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, that's what I'm wondering. Pick up on that Kathleen. Is it mostly to rouse certain voters or is it to suppress the vote among others?

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: It's a conflux equation. Attack works because it gains attention more quickly than advocacy because it's more quickly retained and recalled.

But it also works on specific kinds of voters. For example, it's more likely to work on people who aren't tightly tied to their party. It's more likely to work on people who aren't well-informed about the candidate who's being attacked. And it's more likely to work when it reinforces something we already believe about the party.

So even though the Democrat is saying he won't raise taxes or she won't, the ad that says, yes, that person will is more believable when the attack is on a Democrat. The reverse is true when someone attacks the Republican saying, "That person will cut social programs."

Attack can be counterproductive. It can actually mobilize the opponent's supporters. And when it goes over the line, and media call it on it, it can create a backlash. But Evan is right: It also, when it reaches a high enough level, can demobilize voters. That's a strategy for those who think they can mobilize on the ground. This year, that's the Republicans.

As ads cross the finish line...

JEFFREY BROWN: That backlash you're talking about, is it clear where the line is that leads to a backlash?

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: No, and it's different media market to media market, state by state. For example, the ad that created a backlash in Minnesota in the first race that Paul Wellstone ran against incumbent Rudy Boschwitz created a backlash. That is, Republican Senatorial Committee came in with an ad attacking Wellstone. Clear backlash in Minnesota, hurt Boschwitz, helped Wellstone. That ad would have looked like business as usual in New Jersey and probably wouldn't have created comment.

JEFFREY BROWN: You're laughing. I mean, do you see this line in the current campaign being drawn?

EVAN TRACEY: This campaign has been an interesting one, certainly from the negative advertising standpoint. You know, every campaign is about re-running the last campaign adjusted for inflation, which means the cycle gets longer, the money gets more, and the rhetoric goes up.

And, you know, we're at a point in this election where the crime spot du jour is stopping the Internet sexual predator, and you have, you know, the Foley scandal and, you know, things along those lines that keep kind of filtering into the campaign rhetoric this year. You know, it seems that the line is getting at least -- we're getting close to a line, I think. I'm not sure which line, but we're getting close to one.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, you just used the word "money." You tracked the money spent on these things. Where are we at with that? A lot is being spent, right?

EVAN TRACEY: Right now, we're exceeding about $230 million a week on campaign ads all over the country.

JEFFREY BROWN: A week?

EVAN TRACEY: A week. We will sprint past the $1.6 billion that was spent in 2004, and we're likely to end up some place close to $2 billion being spent on television ads in this midterm election.

And, again, there's a couple of things driving this. The first is everybody has known what the stakes are going to be for a very long time, so fundraising has been going aggressively. The next reason is you have a lot of incumbent insecurity out there.

I mean, I think, once Joe Lieberman lost in his own primary, you saw a lot of campaigns accelerating their ad buys, going on the air earlier. And then a lot of open primaries and governor seats and ballot measures, which are just really making this a record-breaking election, certainly for television expenditures.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, Kathleen, briefly, what do we look for in the next week-and-a-half, just more of the same?

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: No, I'm actually looking for a return to advocacy, as candidates who are not the incumbent try to offer their voters a reason to vote for. You're seeing that in the Tom Kean race, for example, in New Jersey right now.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Evan Tracey, thank you both.

EVAN TRACEY: Thank you.