Archive for Monday, October 28, 2002

Negative ads turn off voters

October 28, 2002


Every election year the voting public endures a self-righteous flogging from voices of conscience in the media about how few of us actually go out and exercise our civic duty at the ballot box. But if those sentinels of public virtue turned on their TVs in the months leading up to Election Day, I think they'd discover that the manner in which many candidates conduct their campaigns plays a significant role in fueling the rampant voter apathy they are attempting to address.

The 30-second TV spots that dominate the airwaves in the days leading up to an election fall into two categories, and they both insult the intelligence of voters who have achieved at least an eighth-grade education.

The first type of campaign ad usually makes its appearance about three to six months before the election takes place. These sugary-sweet, content-free spots paint a warm-and-fuzzy portrait of the candidate as a hard-working, patriotic, family-oriented individual who has spent his whole life looking for an opportunity to serve others. The election apparently presents this golden-hearted individual with the ultimate opportunity to help his fellow man.

These commercials never mention where a candidate stands on the issues or what he intends to accomplish in office. Such details are apparently more than the average simple-minded voter needs to be troubled with. They are annoying and a complete waste of time for everyone involved, but unfortunately they represent the high point of the television campaign season.

As the election winds down into its final weeks, things tend to deteriorate, and we usually experience the second type of campaign commercial the attack ad. Inevitably some candidate who finds himself trailing badly in the polls gets desperate and lashes out with an outlandish half-truth about his opponent in an effort to darken his opposition's image in the voters' minds and thereby level the playing field. This is what is known in the political world as "going negative" and it seems to happen in every election.

Political analysts say these ads are used for one reason they work. Voters complain about them but apparently when they are in the voting booths the negative images are the ones that often stick with them. If a candidate is attacked and does not strike back, he stands little chance of winning an election. (This has been considered a truism in politics ever since Michael Dukakis' presidential campaign was completely derailed by his failure to refute the infamous Willie Horton ads.)

But those same analysts agree that these ads also turn many voters off toward politics and are one of the main reasons many of us don't bother to vote at all. The politicians who resort to these tactics would do well to remember that just because something is effective doesn't mean it's the right thing to do.

One could also drastically improve one's chances of winning an election by buying votes or excluding certain qualified voters from the polls, but such tactics make a mockery of the democratic process. Similarly, any electoral victory achieved by virtue of a smear campaign meant to confuse voters ought to be considered a badly tainted one.

So to those politicians who are running these attack ads shame on you. You may win the election, but you are a detriment to our system of government. If you really loved America, you'd show a little more respect for the electoral process and for the voters you claim to be anxious to serve.

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