WASHINGTON — It's a dangerous world.
To be a political candidate, that is.
Oklahoma Gov. Brad Henry is a lot like Adolf Hitler, an ad on the Internet warns. North Carolina Rep. Brad Miller wants to make America "one big fiesta for illegal aliens and homosexuals," a radio spot featuring cheerful mariachi music claims. Indiana Rep. Chris Chocola opposes medical care for wounded vets, a TV ad suggests.
And Pennsylvania Senate candidate Bob Casey? Electing him apparently would risk nuclear annihilation.
A record $2 billion is being spent on candidate and independent "issue" TV ads during this campaign, estimates Evan Tracey of TNSMI/Campaign Media Analysis Group, a firm that tracks political ads. In the last 60 days, he says, an unprecedented 90% of the ads have been negative.
Some attack ads accurately criticize candidates for votes they've cast and positions they've taken, an analysis by the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Political Fact Check found, but many of the ads amount to what the report called "political mudslinging." Spots by both parties distort the truth or leave a misimpression in an effort to make a candidate seem unacceptable and his election foolhardy, even dangerous.
Political forces have combined this year in "a perfect recipe for attack advertising," says John Geer, a Vanderbilt University political scientist and author of In Defense of Negativity: Attack Ads in Presidential Campaigns. "The parties are continuing to polarize, and the stakes are high because who controls Congress is in play."
What's more, neither side has much of a positive agenda to spotlight, he says, particularly on the issue foremost on many voters' minds: the war in Iraq.
Voters routinely decry negative ads and insist they ignore them.
In a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll last month, seven in 10 said they believed "not much" or "nothing at all" of what they heard in political ads. By more than 2-to-1, they said most of the TV commercials they've seen this year have been negative.
Twenty-eight percent said most ads have been "very" or "extremely" negative, compared with just 4% who said most have been "very" or "extremely" positive.
The survey of 1,007 adults Oct. 6-8 had a margin of error of +/—3 percentage points.
The "toxicity" of the political environment may discourage some people from bothering to go to the polls, says Page Gardner of Women's Voices, Women Vote, a group that encourages political participation by single women. "They're sick of the who-shot-John syndrome," she says.
Nevertheless, campaigns deploy negative ads because they work.
A Notre Dame study of advertising in the 2004 presidential campaign concluded that negative ads were much more likely than positive ones to weaken support for a candidate. Five percent of voters said their support for their favored candidate was weakened after viewing a positive ad for the opposition, while 14% said their support was weakened after seeing a negative ad targeting their side.
"They hated the negative ads, they saw positive ads as being more persuasive and influential, and yet that was not the effect," says Joan Phillips, a marketing professor who helped lead the study.
The non-partisan Fact Check analysis, released last Friday, concluded that the National Republican Congressional Committee had spent $41.9 million attacking Democratic opponents and $5 million supporting its own candidates. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee had spent $18 million attacking Republican opponents and $3.1 million supporting its own candidates.
The proportion of negative ads was much higher than in 2004, when Federal Election Commission records show that the political parties spent about $6 on ads in favor of congressional candidates for every $5 spent opposing candidates.
Some negative ads, including tough ones, tap humor. Over the past few days, Republican gubernatorial candidates in Minnesota, Texas and Wisconsin began airing 60-second radio ads that mimic Anheuser-Busch's sarcastic "Real Men of Genius" spots for Bud Light.
In Texas, as a singer croons in the background, a mock-serious announcer "salutes" Democrat Chris Bell as "Mr. Way-Too-Liberal-For-Texas Guy."
In Wisconsin, a similar ad dubs Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle "Mr. Tax-Hiking-Politician Man."
The tone isn't likely to lift as the campaign heads into its final weekend, Tracey says, especially in competitive contests. He likens political advertising to a jury trial: "Opening arguments" in which a candidate introduces himself or herself — and, often, the spouse, kids and dog — followed by a period of attack and counterattack. Then there are "closing arguments."
A candidate who's safely ahead may turn to "a warm-and-fuzzy" appeal at the end, Tracey says. "But if you're losing, that's when you start to throw your haymaker."