The combination of a competitive presidential race and a key U.S. Senate contest in Ohio this year has unleashed a predictable flood of televised political ads, most negative, that promises to continue unabated until Election Day. Fueled by sometimes secretive committees that function independently of candidates (at least when campaign finance watchdogs are looking), the tone of the ads appears to be getting nastier as spending increases.
The Wesleyan Media Project found record-setting negativity in the 2012 presidential race, with three-fourths of the ads appealing to anger. There is little reason to think that things wonít get worse this year, especially in battleground Ohio.
A recent survey by Harvardís Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy of academic research on negative advertising sheds little light on the reasons behind the trend. There is no firm consensus that negative ads are effective tools in winning races or depressing turnout, although there are indications they lower feelings about how effective and trustworthy government is. Whatís more, polling by the University of Akronís Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics found 80 percent of Ohioans are bothered by negative campaigning, and 76 percent say it damages democracy.
So why go negative? The usual answer among campaign managers and consultants is simple: It works. If the political gurus were really being honest, they would probably say something like this, instead: If done well, negative ads can help win a race, but if done badly, they can backfire, contributing to defeat. In other words, it matters how the attacks are done and how the rest of the campaign is being run.
Over the years, there have some interesting examples of negative ads in Ohio politics. One of the most fascinating came in the 1992 U.S. Senate race, when Mike DeWine, a Republican who is now Ohio attorney general, challenged incumbent Democrat John Glenn.
DeWine came within about four percentage points of Glenn, University of Akron polling showed, with a televised ad that compared Glennís millionaire lifestyle to his $3 million in unpaid 1984 presidential campaign debts owed to more than 700 businesses.
A drum-banging bunny, like the high-charged Energizer battery mascot, came across the screen in an astronaut suit to the voice-over of ďJohn Glenn keeps owing and owing and owing.Ē Glenn had to fire back, defending a career during which he risked his life, to stanch the bleeding.
In the U.S. Senate race in Ohio this year, Republican incumbent Rob Portman and his allies appear to have gotten the best of Ted Strickland, the former Democratic governor, by using negative campaigning. Portman is up by about 7.5 percentage points. This spring, Strickland was leading by more.
Portmanís campaign constantly refers to the former governor as ďRetread Ted.Ē Ohio Republicans have now launched a new web ad campaign dredging up a largely forgotten scandal about prisoners working at the Governorís Residence during Stricklandís time in office. That followed attack ads by the National Republican Senatorial Committee that blame Strickland for wasting a $1 billion rainy day fund when the state was in the middle of a national recession, another issue that goes back to the 2010 campaign.
Portman, to be sure, has run a disciplined, well-organized, well-funded campaign. He has taken care not to get caught up in Donald Trumpís controversies and has managed to avoid suffering much damage over his past support of free trade deals, in part by strongly opposing President Obamaís proposed Trans Pacific Partnership.
But he and his allies have also been relentlessly negative, and itís working.
Hoffman is a Beacon Journal editorial writer. He can be reached at 330-996-3740 or emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.