Negative ads play crucial role in political campaigns, says Vanderbilt professor; John Geer offers contrarian view in new book

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The next time you hear a political candidate blast his or her opponent in a negative political advertisement, your natural inclination may be to grab the remote and change the channel. Vanderbilt political scientist John Geer contends, however, that you may want to leave the remote alone.

Geer shows in his new book, In Defense of Negativity: Attack Ads in Presidential Campaigns, that attacks ads actually play an important role in the democratic political process. The Vanderbilt professor of political science has conducted an in-depth analysis of negative advertising in presidential campaigns from 1960 to 2004.

“Politics is often rough and tumble and you need to know the good and the bad of all candidates,” he said. “Attack advertising provides the “bad,” augmenting the quality of information voters have before they head to the polls.”

Geer, who is also a professor of public policy and education, defines negativity as any criticism leveled by one candidate against another during a campaign and shows empirically that the frequency of attack in presidential ads by both Democrats and Republicans has been on the rise the last 40 years. “There are two aspects of negative appeals that enrich the information environment available for voters,” Geer writes. “One, negative information is more issue-oriented than positive appeals. Two, that attacks are more likely to be supported by evidence than self-promotional claims.”

In his book, Geer cites one of the more memorable attack ads from 2004, which showed Senator John Kerry on a windsurfer. The ad was intended to convey the message that Kerry could not be trusted, that he tackled too much.

“The opposition has every incentive to raise such doubts, since such information is not only important to voters, it is something that can be documented and thus viewed as credible,” Geer writes. One chapter of Geer’s book analyzes four of the most controversial ads from the 1988 presidential contest between George H. W. Bush and Michael Dukakis. These were called “Revolving Door,” “Boston Harbor,” “Tank” and “Handler” (or “Packaging the President”). Geer argues that while these ads could be described as hard-hitting, they were not unprecedented – given the negativity of Lyndon Johnson’s so-called “Ice Cream” and “Daisy” ads in 1964.

He points out that negative ads on television have been part of presidential campaigns since 1952. The difference during the 1980s and later was that the media became much more interested in reporting about campaign strategies, including running negative ads. “The advertising in 1988, despite all the claims, did not usher in a new era of American politics. It was the news media’s coverage that brought about a new era. And this change is important to our understanding of campaigns, in general, and our understanding of political advertising, in particular,” Geer writes in the book.

Geer has found numerous examples throughout American history of negative presidential campaigns. Andrew Jackson was accused of being a murderer and a cannibal, and his wife was called a prostitute in the 1828 presidential campaign. “Stupid” and an “ape” were words that critics used to describe Abraham Lincoln in 1860. Geer has noted that even in more recent times, Harry Truman drew an analogy between the Republicans and the Nazis.

“The reality is that attacks stimulate voter interest,” Geer said. “You don’t want politics to be personal, but voters do want a frank exchange of beliefs, especially in a time when the two major parties are so polarized. In the end, democracy is about disagreement.” Elections decide that disagreement for a few years until the next round of balloting takes place.

Media contact: Ann Marie Deer Owens, 615-322-NEWS

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