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Putting A Positive Spin On Negative Campaigning

The general presidential election is still months away, but President Obama and presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney are already hammering each other with attack ads.

Obama's most recent ads criticize Romney's time as a so-called "corporate raider," while Romney has released several ads seizing upon the president's statement that the "private sector is doing fine."

There is no democratic country in the world that doesn't have negativity in it.

Negative campaigning is hardly new, but at the rate this year's campaign is going some say this could be one of the most negative races in recent history.

"I think it's very likely to be the most negative race since the advent of television," says John Geer, a political scientist at Vanderbilt University.

Geer tells weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz that there are several factors that could influence that negativity, including huge superPAC donations and the increasing polarization of the political parties. A third factor, he says, is the candidates themselves.

"Both candidates [have] some flaws," he says, "and those flaws will provide grist for the respective attack mills."

The Positivity Of Negativity

Poll after poll shows Americans don't like negative campaigning, but Geer says, people do want to know is whether a candidate has raised taxes or flip-flopped on an issue. He says one study found negative ads — by a margin of 60 percent — tend to be more accurate and truthful than positive ones.

"They want to know the downsides of candidates," Geer says. "We spend a lot of time worrying about the exaggeration or the misrepresentation on the negative side, but the same thing [happens] on the positive side."

Geer, who wrote the book In Defense of Negativity, says democracy requires negativity. When one group is trying to take control of the seat of power held by another group, criticism, and therefore negativity, is how they communicate to the public that those in power need to be replaced, he says.

"There is no democratic country in the world that doesn't have negativity in it," he says, "because it's ... a foundational aspect of the system."

Recent research from the Wesleyan Media Project shows that this presidential campaign has already been very negative, and Geer says it will be interesting to see how it plays out as the November election approaches.

"Obama does not have a lot to run on ... and Romney has some aspects of his record that he has to explain," he says.

One thing that has changed over the last decade or so is the news media's fascination with negative ads, Geer says. The power of some negative ads comes not from the ad itself but from the news coverage that follows.

Rise Of The Negative TV Spot

One of the TV ads that began that media fascination, Geer says, is the now infamous " Willie Horton ad." The ad ran during the 1988 presidential election between Republican George H.W. Bush and Democrat Michael Dukakis, a race often considered one of the nastiest elections in the modern era.

The ad, released by a Bush political action committee, features a Massachusetts prisoner named Willie Horton who committed a brutal assault and rape while on a weekend prison furlough. Dukakis was governor of Massachusetts at the time. He had defended against earlier attack ads, but Dukakis says this one was so negative and racially charged that he and his team decided the best response was to ignore it.

That decision might have cost him the presidency.

"I thought people were tired of a lot of the polarization that was taking place ... and basically just said, 'We're not going to respond to those attacks,' " Dukakis tells Raz. "It was a terrible mistake."

Dukakis, who now teaches at Northeastern University and UCLA, says that by the time he realized his mistake it was too late to repair all of the damage it had done. He says he found out the hard way that negative campaigning, if left unanswered, can really work.

"You can't do what I did ... [because] if you do that, you're going to be hurt and you're going to be hurt badly," he says.

Now that outside groups can spend unlimited amounts of money on ads, the 2012 election could make 1988 look pretty tame. Dukakis says there's no doubt this campaign is going to get very nasty, but he says there's no reason for it.

"I'm not suggesting we wouldn't have some negative campaigning without Citizens United," he says, "but I think that it was a terrible thing for the American political system."

Negative Ads Here To Stay

No matter the year, negative campaigns are part of America's DNA. During the 1828 presidential race between Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams, Jackson was accused of cock-fighting and cannibalism; his wife was called a prostitute.

"We seem to think ... everything is getting worse, but if people had any historical memory they'd see that this is relatively mild," says New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich.

Rich, who wrote about negative ads this week, says that 2012 is not a departure from history. Romney ran negative ads early and often in the heated Republican primary and now in the general election. He tells Raz that the Obama campaign has shown it can do the same, citing ads attacking Romney's time at Bain Capital.

"The Obama campaign is schooled in this and presumably will act upon their expertise, as will the Romney campaign," he says.

Rich agrees that conversations wrought by negative campaigning are ultimately bad for American political discourse, but he says we can't pretend that they're not happening. The campaigns are going to have to participate in those conversations to sell their respective candidates.

The larger point, Rich says, is that the country will survive it all no matter how negative it gets.

"We can always feel that everything is going bad at any given moment," he says, "but the truth is we have to have a little bit of a longer view and realize that this is what waxes and wanes in American politics."

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