McCain's Rev. Wright Attack Ad Can Drive Undecideds: Polling Science Tells Us So

In these last hours of the campaign, the sudden onslaught of McCain 527 "swiftboat" style Rev. Jeremiah Wright attack ads are worrisome and could swing undecided voters and shift close battleground states into the McCain column.

The ads show Rev. Jeremiah Wright and we hear his voice saying "God Damn America," the "KKK of A", and other incendiary words. There are a woman's words about trusting the presidency to a man who had Wright as his pastor and mentor, and then print saying of Barack Obama: "Too Radical, Too Risky" for America. Various Rev. Wright speeches are on youTube and the ad itself was there earlier today.

Millions of dollars are being spent on these ads that are all quite similar and appear to come from different groups (goptrust.com, as one example). They just ran one inside "Hardball" on MSNBC. And those millions of dollars aren't being spent without some people thinking their money is being well spent and will get results.

That's because both parties, and these 527 and other numbered groups, test market their ad campaigns well in advance, then tweak the ads many times over with carefully selected focus groups of undecided voters.

The technique has been honed and made into a science over the last 20 years, especially since Lee Atwater developed the method into a disturbing art in the Willie Horton ads that tested well for Vice President Bush in his smear of Gov. Dukakis in 1988. Incidentally, Atwater asked for forgiveness on his deathbed, regretting what he had done in his career with such ads.

The critical point is that it is easier to scare undecideds than uplift and inspire these same voters. The psychobiological study of fear demonstrates this.

People innately fear more immediate dangers that can be readily imagined than more distant threats. They experience real bodily fear and anxiety. Global warming, for example, doesn't scare most voters much in the here and now as it will happen more in years to come and some may rationalize miles from our shores. It takes some thinking to get worked up about global warming.

A presidential candidate linked closely to his own African American pastor who said "God Damn America" will not calm the concerns of millions of shaky and impressionable voters.

A four to six point margin in some battleground states with five to nine percent of voters still undecided coupled with an unpredictable Bradley effect--never tested in a presidential election--and so many other factors, make for uncertainty.

And the Bradley effect may come more into play now that Rev. Wright's preaching style and voice and picture have been brought back into the campaign. The ad clearly permits the McCain support groups to play the race card, and inject primal racial fear, in a very deliberate way.

Meanwhile, commentators are spewing out one Obama path to 270+ electoral voters after another for Tuesday night, and all the electoral college maps leaning blue are impressive.

But I am not convinced. I think Senator Obama may well win, but I also know the power of negative attack ads on less informed voters. The people who tweak campaign ads for every last bit of power are not paid millions of dollars for nothing.

This is true on either side, from the most inspiring to duplicitious of ads.

And who knows if on Monday a new fear inducing ad from a McCain support group won't take up another feature of Obama's biography?