Is going negative a positive?
The McCain campaign's ad barrage attacking Barack Obama debuted Friday. All the pundits said it would happen - and they were right.
The conventional campaign strategy handbook is quite clear on these matters. Falling behind in the polls? Yep, slipped several points over the past 10 days.
Fighting the battle on unfriendly turf? Yep, economic bad times help Democrats and the party not occupying the White House.
Well then, the response is not in doubt: Say something nasty about your opponent and link that flaw to what ails America.
Thus was born "Ambition," produced for national airing by the McCain organization, and "Chicago Way," released by the Republican National Committee for selective exposure in the Midwest.
"Ambition" starts with Obama's alleged link to "terrorist Bill Ayers," accuses Obama of lying about it, asserts that this demonstrates "blind ambition" and "bad judgment" and posits that these two qualities produced the "housing market collapse."
"Chicago Way" plays on the virtuous rural versus evil urban divide in Midwestern states in an effort to portray Obama as just another urban pol. Both spots make heavy use of the color black, a visual cue that it is more night than morning in America. Only McCain's "I approved this ad" is brightly lit.
Will the ads hurt Obama?
The very fact that the media predicted this would happen takes much of the punch away from the message. The prevailing story line is not "Who is Ayers?" but "Is this a sign of McCain's desperation"? The impact is also undercut by the Ayers connection being old news -- it arose during the primaries -- and by the McCain campaign itself sponsoring the spot rather than having a third party underwrite it, thereby risking a backlash effect.
The public sees the 2008 presidential campaign's negativity level as relatively normal. A Sept. 12-15 Pew Center poll had 43 percent saying it was "too negative," below the 51 percent who characterized it as "not too negative." That falls short of all the swift boating and wind surfing four years ago. In Pew's post-2004 election survey, 72 percent thought that the Kerry-Bush contest featured "more mud slinging or negative campaigning compared to past presidential elections," up sharply from the 34 percent who said that the 2000 presidential campaign was more negative than usual.
An Oct. 8-9 Newsweek poll released over the weekend finds voters more likely to perceive McCain on the attack, even prior to the most recent spots. Of the 71 percent who had viewed one or more McCain commercials, 56 percent report that they are "too negative." Conversely, of the 73 percent who had seen one or more Obama ads, only 29 percent labeled them "too negative."
The Newsweek poll also asked "thinking about the tone of the campaign run by the major party candidates this year, which -- if any -- do you think has been too negative or nasty?" Thirty-nine percent say the McCain-Palin campaign has crossed the line, 10 percent Obama-Biden, 31 percent both, 17 percent neither and 3 percent are unsure.
Terry Jones is a polling expert and professor at the University of Missouri at St. Louis. To reach him, contact Beacon features and commentary editor Donna Korando.
Chriss Britt | State Journal Register, Springfield, IL