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Why Negative Ads Get Positive Results

Op-Heads: a virtual chat on the issues that matter

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Click on the video above to watch BU profs Thomas Whalen and Tobe Berkovitz discuss negative political ads. Click here to watch the full version.

It didn’t take long for this presidential campaign to get personal. History should have prepared us for the mudslinging, except that both Barack Obama and John McCain made explicit pledges to run clean, issues-focused campaigns.

“One of the things I’m proud of, at the beginning of this campaign I said, ‘This is a different time,’” Obama said at a North Carolina campaign event in April 2008. “We’ve got to run a different kind of campaign. So we’re not going to go around doing negative ads. We’re going to keep it positive. We’re going to talk about the issues.”

A month earlier, at a town hall meeting in Virginia, McCain told the crowd, “Americans want more respectful campaigns,” and he promised to run one. A memo to reporters from McCain’s campaign manager elaborated. “Overheated rhetoric and personal attacks on our opponents distract from the big differences between John McCain’s vision for the future of our nation and the Democrats’.”

But both campaigns started tearing each other down almost immediately (view a McCain ad, and an Obama ad), and they have even been going negative about each other’s negativity.

So what happened? For some answers, BU Today consulted two veteran political observers: Thomas Whalen, a College of General Studies associate professor of political science and a presidential historian, and Tobe Berkovitz, College of Communication associate dean and an associate professor of communication, who has worked since 1974 as a political media consultant on presidential, congressional, and gubernatorial election campaigns.

Got an issue to debate? E-mail today@bu.edu with “Op-Heads” in the subject line.

Edward Brown can be reached at ebrown@bu.edu. Chris Berdik can be reached at cberdik@bu.edu.

2 Comments

2 Comments on Why Negative Ads Get Positive Results

  • Anonymous on 10.09.2008 at 9:42 am

    Obama's choice

    It was unfortunate that Obama rejected McCain’s call for townhall series (even once a week). Answer people’s questions unfiltered — see disaster when Tom Brokaw (media) filters the questions! Obama, as he did in Chicago, is playing the “system” to his advantage. And changing his mind on taking public financing as promised. Well, it’s amazing how Obama adapts his policies and positions and no one in the media calls him on it. Did he change his position on off-shore drilling and Nuclear power yet?! Like a Jello, as McCain said. That’s the “change” Obama brings! He’s celebrity to some who are blinded by his false “hope”.

  • Tom O'Leary on 10.09.2008 at 2:12 pm

    Media Matters

    Great discussion. I can only echo your observations that the media perpetuates the negative tactics by making them the lead story rather than the issues that should be.

    Ironically, MSM pundits host panels of discussions that continually criticize and analyze the candidates for engaging in attack campaigns rather than the pressing issues – but that is exactly what the media is discussing – thus perpetuating (and giving credence to) the whole character over substance strategy.

    If the media stopped giving time to the hype, the tactic would be much less effective. But let’s be real here. The media is interested in one thing, and that’s ratings.

    Unfortunately, we (the people) tune in to the scandals in much larger numbers than we do for an objective analysis of issues. So the media strategy is as calculated as the political strategy. It’s all politics in the end.

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