Eight seconds is all that stands between a bull rider and his prize belt buckle. If they can ride that nasty bull without getting bucked off before the eight-second buzzer then they are in the clear. Campaigns are a lot like bull riding. Survival depends on being able to hang on for a couple of seconds while the negative ad tries to buck you off.
The 2010 election ads have not been pretty. It has been a rough and tumble ride this election -- Viagra handed out to child molesters; Latino illegal immigrants getting limo rides, wives being told to submit to their husbands; Christianity endangered by Aqua Buddha. Both parties have put on their chaps and gotten into the ring. The prolific use of negative ads is the one thing both sides of the aisle have been able to agree on this year.
Negative ads are a constant in politics because they work. Negative ads elicit strong emotional responses of anger, fear, and anxiety. These emotions are stronger than their positive emotional counterparts. In practical terms, you get more bang for your buck when you elicit fear rather than happy, sunny thoughts. Negative ads are especially effective at mobilizing turnout (Goldstein and Freedman 2002). The passions they cue are what literally get people out of their seats and into the voting booth.
Politics is not a pretty sport and negative campaigning is as old as politics itself. Dating back to the founding of this country the Federalists and anti-Federalists were less than civil in their attacks against each other. Back in the late 1700s John Adams was portrayed as the best friend a Brit ever had. Today, Harry Reid is portrayed as the best friend a Latino illegal alien ever had.
We have not reached a new peak of ugliness in negative ads. If anything, modern day campaign ads are more civilized than the attacks of the 19th Century (Mark 2007). The personal lives, political associations, and professional histories of candidates have always been and continue to be fair game. More specifically, association with a persona non grata is the foundation of negative ads. The novelty of the 2010 election cycle is that two groups have become the go-to antagonists: Latino illegal immigrants and Muslims. Both groups are a foreign "other." Both are cast as imperiling America but in different ways.
Immigrants have always been scapegoated in tough economic times. The Italian, Irish, Eastern-European, and Chinese immigrants have all been the target of campaign attacks. During economic downturns, immigrants are perceived as taking jobs and scarce public resources. One hundred years ago it was European immigrants. Today it's Latinos.
Latinos have been linked to deepening economic uncertainty and become a natural object for attack. By extension anyone (or any party) who has been associated with or perceived to be associated with this group will be attacked. Candidates have gone out of their way to appear tough on immigration. Those candidates that have not been explicitly tough on immigration have become the targets of rather creative negative ads.
The second favorite negative theme for this season is anything Muslim. What is so interesting about this theme is that it is employed in both Republican and Democratic negative ads but in different ways. Republicans draw the more traditional linkage between Muslim culture and terrorist threat. These negative ads look to elicit security concerns through the cuing of Muslim individuals or cultural symbols (e.g. mosques).
The Democrats have taken another route in the Muslim themed negative ads. Democrats draw the linkage between the male dominated Muslim culture and women's rights concerns. Both Alan Grayson and Jack Conway have painted their Republican opponents as sympathizing with views of female submission. Alan Grayson's "Taliban Dan" ad features a sound bite of his opponent Dan Webster referencing the bible that wives should submit to their husbands.
To be sure not all negative ads have the ability to buck off a candidate. Negative campaign ads can backfire and end up helping the object of attack. However, those ads that "get it just right" -- that mobilize the base and push fence sitters to sign on -- will be the ruin of both seasoned and novice politicos. The 2010 negative political ads will take down their fair share of candidates. Some will simply not be able to weather the 30 seconds of negativity. For those that can hang on, they will have to start practicing for the 2012 rodeo.