Political Attack Ads and the 2012 Presidential Race

Political Attack Ads and the 2012 Presidential Race

Politicians have been slinging mud at each other for centuries. But now with super PAC dollars, negative advertising is at an all-time high: Political attack ads and the 2012 presidential race.

Mudslinging has been a part of political campaigns for as long as anyone can remember. But the U.S. Supreme Court decision to allow unlimited amounts of money to be given to super PACs thrust mudslinging into overdrive. Super PACs have already spent nearly $60 million on the 2012 presidential race. And most of that money has gone into negative advertising. This was underscored in last month's Florida primary. In the final weeks, 92 percent of campaign commercials were negative. Diane and her guests will talk about attack ads in the presidential race and whether they're harming the political process.


Jane Mayer

staff writer, "The New Yorker," author of "The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned Into a War on American Ideals."

Vin Weber

Republican consultant, former member of Congress representing Minnesota's 2nd district (1981-93).

Kathleen Hall Jamieson

director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania; among other books, she's co-author of "The Obama Victory: How Media, Money and Message Shaped the 2008 Election."

Program Highlights

Negative ads in political campaigns have been credited with turning a race. Many blame the notorious Willy Horton ad in part for causing Michael Dukakis to lose his bid for president in 1988. But today, the millions of dollars flooding into campaign superPACs have changed the game - many believe for the worse.

Turning Point

The 1964 ad supporting President Lyndon Johnson for president that showed a young girl, a countdown, and a mushroom cloud - the so-called "daisy" ad - was a sort of turning point for negative campaign tactics, said Jamieson. What made the daisy ad different was that its impact was
achieved largely through magnification; that is, other media outlets decided to cover the ad itself, magnifying its influence. Some of the superPAC ads from the current campaign cycle are also gaining extra airtime on cable, similarly magnifying their impact, Jamieson said.

Not Just About The Money

The nature of attack ads can be just as important as the amount of money that goes into producing them. This election cycle has seen very serious character attacks, Jamieson said. The rise of superPACS has also taken a lot of the accountability out of the process of producing negative ads, Weber said.

The Media's Role

Some media outlets like FactCheck.org aim to assess the content of political ads for truthfulness and call out those that are blatant lies, but Weber emphasized again that the media "plays both of the fence" when it comes to negative ads because attack ads make for interesting content. "Back in 2004, the infamous Swift boat ad that hurt Senator Carrie was only aired to 1 percent of the population and yet 80 percent of the people thought they saw it by the end of the campaign. Why? 'Cause the news media gave it massive coverage," Weber said.

What The Ads Are NOT About

Mayer pointed out that the most negative ads are not about policy decisions, but rather about cultural issues. Weber said that the campaigns themselves have talked about serious issues, even if the discussions are not reflected in the ads. "There's no absence of information out there about where the candidates stand on a whole range of issues," Weber said.

You can read the full transcript here.

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