by Jonathan Singer, Tue Aug 12, 2008 at 04:03:39 PM EDT
Mark Penn takes to The Politico this week in defense of negative advertising, including the "3 a.m." ad his team at the Clinton campaign produced, writing that "[c]lever negative advertising works." I think that's right, to an extent (though it does surprise me at least a bit to be writing here that I think Penn is correct). But I do think it misses something -- that clever negative advertising can work, not that it always does.
A professor of mine, David Menefee-Libey (who actually helped turn me on to blogs back in the early part of this decade), once analogized negative advertisements to a pitcher throwing over to first base to keep the runner honest. Whenever a pitcher makes such a move, the fans groan a bit, and if the pitcher does it too often, they may start to boo. However, if the pitcher doesn't throw over to first base, a runner may be able to get too great of a lead, even to the point at which he is more able to steal second -- which would draw even louder boos from the crowd. In other words, the move is effective and necessary, but it is one that isn't particularly appreciated by the fans -- and if used too much can actually annoy fans nearly as much as giving up a stolen base.
Similarly, negative ads -- or contrast ads, however you define them -- are necessary in politics. Without putting your opponent on the defensive -- keeping them honest, just as a pitcher does to a runner on first base by throwing over to the first baseman from time to time -- their path to victory becomes easier (just as it's easier for the runner to steal first base). But there's a catch to this rule, one that Penn misses (and one that I think the McCain campaign is missing, too): If you go too negative, it can actually be counterproductive, and be nearly as ineffective as running no negative ads whatsoever.
The McCain campaign has indeed been "clever," as Penn puts it, in their hits on Barack Obama. They have been able to get their meme out to the public -- with the great help of the Beltway's establishment media, who has given the ads at least treble the airtime that the campaign paid for -- and shifted some attention in the race.
But John McCain's strategy isn't wholly effective here. It's not clear, for instance, that Obama's numbers -- whether nationally or in the key swing states -- have actually moved down significantly. What's more, although the ads may have gone to some length in helping coalesce the Republican base -- after all, there's nothing like antagonizing enemy to rally the troops -- there is little evidence that McCain's numbers have moved upwards, either.
It may be too soon to see the real movement; it could be that the damage to Obama is long-term, not short-term. But from the vantage of today, about two weeks into the McCain campaign's fiercely negative onslaught against Obama, it's hard to see any tangible proof that the effort has been working (and no, changing the sentiments of Joe Scarborough or Mark Halperin doesn't count). In fact, during the time that the McCain campaign has been investing a serious amount of its time -- and money -- in trying to belittle Obama and his supporters, McCain has almost entirely shied away from presenting any message about his own vision of the country to the American voter. This opportunity cost cannot be overlooked.
McCain will have time to lay out his agenda moving forward. But at the same time as he has been dealing in banalities, Obama has been responding by linking McCain to George W. Bush -- a hit that has the potential to be (and seemingly is) significantly more effective -- while at the same time laying out his own positive vision for the country. And in the end, merely being clever or grabbing the attention of those inside the Beltway isn't necessarily the way to win an election.