October 18, 2000
After a background report, Terence Smith leads a discussion on the state of the Bush and Gore ad campaigns.
The NewsHour Media Unit is funded by a grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts.
SMITH: To assess how the ad competition is playing out, we're joined
by three close watchers of the airwaves. Today, two of them are in battleground
markets of Philadelphia and Detroit. Kathleen Hall Jamieson is dean
of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania.
Peter Marks is a national correspondent for The New York Times
covering political media. And William Saletan is a senior writer at
Slate, the online magazine, where he covers the ad wars in a
feature entitled, "Damned Spot." Welcome to all three of you.
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: Terry, let me start by telling you something that I think is really important from our national survey of the electorate. You know, we've been following voters since November of last year. We've interviewed over 75,000. And we've been tracking how they learn and what they learn. And on one of the issues in these ads, the public is becoming more confused instead of seeing the issue clarified, and that's what the two candidates would do on Social Security. And so it is important to remember that ads are only telling one side of the story. There needs to be a context wrapped around those Gore claims. This is an issue that's consequential to individuals and it's also consequential to the rest of the electorate. Ordinarily ads help us spike the learning curve. They don't deflate the learning curve. In this case, we need a little bit more contextual information to understand those claims about Social Security.
TERENCE SMITH: Well, is it, Kathleen, because those ads are frequently in conflict?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: When ads are in conflict, we actually are pretty good at sorting out the common themes that each are arguing, because they tend to compliment each other in that they tend to stress the strongest point that one can make on each side. So when both sides are engaging, and they're not now engaging on Social Security, accuracy of information -- the electorate is pretty savvy -- actually does go up. We've seen it go up, for example, on the two prescription drug plans, on the education proposals. On those areas in which there's been engagement in ads as well as in the debates, accuracy is rising. But at the end of the first debate and the end of the last presidential debate, the issue of Social Security was left somewhat hanging with charge and counter-charge and no clear arbitration. The press needs to step in and take this complex issue in hand and help people make sense of the implications of the transition caused of moving to some private expenditure, some investment that's private in Social Security in the Bush plan because that's basically what's at issue here.
|Effective, deceptive or both?|
TERENCE SMITH: Will Saletan, you spend some of your time doing that, trying to sort all this out. When you look at these, are there ads that strike you as particularly effective or deceptive or both?
WILLIAM SALETAN: I think both. I think it's a thin line sometimes between an ad that distorts the truth and an ad that gives you information. But I'm really fascinated by the way that each of these campaigns will take one issue, run an ad on it and try to frame that issue in a way that touches on other issues. It's a springboard to larger themes.
TERENCE SMITH: Give me an example.
WILLIAM SALETAN: A great example of that is the Bush campaign ads, and the Republican National Committee ads about education. Now here's an issue which the Republicans used to treat as just a matter of getting the federal government out of it. Bush is saying, I am for education. I am for getting involved in education, and he's for taking that issue and touching on other issues that he would otherwise have trouble talking about. For example, the economy; the economy is doing really well. He's running against a virtual incumbent. What can he say about it? Well, he can say, we're not in a recession, but we're in an education recession. He can imply that somehow poor education, poor test scores is a leading indicator of economic troubles ahead -- or civil rights. Bush is against affirmative action. We heard that last night. He's against the second hate crimes law that they tried to pass in Texas, or didn't do anything about it. You would think he'd have trouble reaching out to blacks on civil rights. So he says, reading is the new civil right. So he uses one issue to reach out to others.
TERENCE SMITH: Right. And, of course, he has an African-American teacher....
WILLIAM SALETAN: Right, he has a black woman in that ad.
TERENCE SMITH: Right.
WILLIAM SALETAN: And on... by the same token, on the other side, the Gore campaign and the Democrats are using one issue to reach out to larger themes. That ad that they're running on Social Security, notice it doesn't just attack George Bush's Social Security plan. It says, which promise are you going to break? It's trying to branch out from an issue to a larger theme of credibility.
TERENCE SMITH: Peter Marks, you're out in the eye of the storm there in Michigan. I gather ads are on all the time. What's it like, and what impression, if any, is it having?
|Intense race at so many levels|
PETER MARKS: Well, it's interesting, Terry. When you watch TV here, you see a lot... It's such an intense race at so many levels in Michigan, it's sort of the rush hour of the campaign, which is a real problem at this point, I think, for the presidential candidates. I see a ton of attack ads at the lower levels: the Stabenow-Abraham race, a bevy of congressional races, as well. And you occasionally see Gore and Bush poking through, but I think they have a problem as this thing intensifies and more and more candidates at the lower levels, this is the time when a lot of Senate and congressional candidates use their money on TV. It's going to be very hard now for Bush and Gore to get a message through powerfully enough with enough what they call gross ratings points to have the kind of impact they could have say a month ago. The thing that throws that off balance is that people are paying more attention perhaps to every ad. But I'm just noticing that what I see on TV, I'm having a hard time even remembering sometimes that there's a race across the nation as opposed to just in Michigan.
TERENCE SMITH: Is there any way to judge, Peter, what effect the ads are having, not just in Michigan? Is there any way the judge that?
PETER MARKS: There's all kinds of anecdotal, and even, there are some polls that are done. In fact, a poll was recently done that showed something like seven in ten voters in Michigan were deeply aware of the content of the ads that ran here. But there are counterbalancing polls that show that this year, just as Mark Shields said in the earlier piece -- spot that people... there was not much passion showed in the debates. I don't think people sense a lot of passion in this campaign, and certainly not in the ads. And, as a result, they don't remember what they're seeing. There's no ad like a Willy Horton ad. There's no really vicious stuff or particularly compelling positive stuff that stays with you the way great television sometimes does. I think that in the end makes it something of a wash on television.
TERENCE SMITH: Kathleen Hall Jamieson, one of the Gore ads that we did not run here tonight invokes the name of Ronald Reagan. Unusual to have a Democrat citing a Republican icon?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: The last time that happened was 1964 when a Johnson ad essentially argued that Goldwater wasn't mainstream by trying to ally Johnson with Eisenhower as well as with John Kennedy. The risk in this is, traditionally voters think that in foreign policy and military affairs Republicans are better, probably not the best idea to remind people of work with Ronald Reagan as a result. But if I could add something to what Peter said, when you look at all of the ads, it looks somewhat confusing. But in general, the Democrats are running down the party ticket at the other levels on issues much closer and much more consistent with Gore than are the Republicans running with Bush. So in that whole wash of an environment, the identity of the Democratic Party is being more clearly reinforced. There's an advantage there to Gore.
TERENCE SMITH: Will Saletan, do you see it that way?
|Associating Gore with Reagan|
WILLIAM SALETAN: Well, I actually think that it's fairly intelligent of the Gore campaign and the Democratic National Committee to be addressing the question of... to be associating Al Gore with Ronald Reagan and with George Bush on foreign policy...
TERENCE SMITH: President Bush?
WILLIAM SALETAN: Yes, President Bush, because Democrats traditionally have looked weak on foreign policy. And it's an advantage to Gore in a lot of states to say, I stood with President Reagan on arms control. I stood with President Bush on the Persian Gulf vote. I think he's reaching out to a lot of states. And I think if you look where the ads are running, he's appealing to a lot of people who would vote against a Democrat who seemed to be opposing Reagan and Bush.
TERENCE SMITH: Is he and aren't these ads also projecting a notion of bipartisanship, which the public clearly values now?
WILLIAM SALETAN: Yes. I think he is trying to do that. And I think he's trying to project also, by the same token, on domestic affairs, sympathy for the anti-government posture of the old Republican Party. Bush has hurt him a lot, has hurt Gore a lot on anti- government questions. Now we see in a lot of these Gore ads saying not just I'm for helping you, but I'm for helping you without bringing bigger government.
TERENCE SMITH: Peter Marks, in an earlier conversation we had with you, you suggested that you can track the race by looking where the money is being placed, you know, follow the money in terms of the ads. Can you do that for us now? Where's the money going and what does it tell you about the race?
PETER MARKS: Well, where the money is staying is sort of an interesting issue for Gore. He's still spending money in states like Washington, Oregon, Iowa, Wisconsin. And if you recall, those are states that traditionally go, at least in the last few cycles, to Democrats. And the fact that he's still in those states and spending substantially doesn't particularly bode well for his strategy in terms of reaching... trying to branch out - what he was doing earlier was spending a lot in Florida. He's pulled back money there a little bit, and Bush is spending much more there. And that was an indication that he was doing... he was giving Bush a run for his money there. You've still got the concentrations in those states that we've been in for six months: Michigan, Pennsylvania, Missouri. Those are still the states that it's going to happen. The Republicans now have more money. They've held back, and they also had more money in reserve. So they're going... they're widening a bit. They're going into California. That may just be a tactic to try to draw Gore to spend money there. They're in Minnesota; they're in West Virginia. Again, these are states on the Democratic side, not on the Republican side. It indicates you can feel that in the last few weeks, the momentum has shifted and now that Gore is playing catch-up.
TERENCE SMITH: And, Peter, you're right next door to Ohio. What's the situation there -- obviously a key state?
|Pulling out of Ohio?|
PETER MARKS: We've reported that the Gore people were considering or very, very seriously considering pulling money out of Ohio or at least reducing their stake there, primarily because the polls are showing him falling behind. And the same thing was happening in Louisiana.
TERENCE SMITH: Do you go so far as to say they're ceding the state?
PETER MARKS: Well, you know, I don't think that anybody is ceding any state. And this thing has switched so many times in this race, there's such a small margin here that who knows where it's going to be in a week.
TERENCE SMITH: Kathleen Hall Jamieson, the ads now seem more sharp-edged, more confrontational. Is that inevitable in this last stage of the campaign?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: Yes, it is. It's also inevitable, however, that we're going to retain a pretty high level of accuracy on contrast, because, remember, we still have those moderate and independent voters who don't like illegitimate attack, and in a close race, they can be decisive.
TERENCE SMITH: So you think they have to be careful to be right, and strike the right temper?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: Yes. And I think they also need to stay on consequential issues. And look at your opening piece. Those are consequential issues. This is actually a very good presidential race in which the candidates have stayed focused, are largely engaged, have stayed on consequential issues, and engaged in a reasonable amount of contrast. And as we show in "Everything You Think You Know About Politics and Why You're Wrong," voters like that, and it mobilizes them. That's good news for the electorate.
TERENCE SMITH: A few seconds left, Will. What do we have to look forward to?
WILLIAM SALETAN: I think what we have to look forward to is an ad campaign on two levels. There's going to be the negative ads that are running under the radar -- the Republican National Committee running ads saying, Al Gore is for big government, he's bad. And meanwhile these very nice ads on the surface with George W. Bush saying, I don't trust government. I trust you.
TERENCE SMITH: Very effective. Thank you all three very much.
The NewsHour Media Unit, including this site, is funded by grants from:
|Support the kind of journalism done by the NewsHour...Become a member of your local PBS station.|