It is tradition in every campaign for each side to denounce the other as having run the sleaziest race in modern political history. And certainly it seems like every day brings with it a new attack ad deemed "the worst one yet."
While historians are generally skittish when it comes to such claims -- pointing out that past years witnessed some serious mudslinging of their own -- it is hard to dismiss just how dirty and/or memorable some of the attack ads have been this election cycle.
Many times it is an outside group hurling the sludge. On several occasions the notably nasty or remarkable stuff is aired during a Congressional race. Often the charges reek of sexism, racism, and ageism. Almost always they distort records or cross ethical lines. But sometimes, they are just stupid, funny, or dramatic.
Either way, for the political masochists among us, here is a compendium of the best, worst, and most memorable hits of the 2008 election cycle.
(Did we miss a great spot? Email us.)
It's 3 A.M.: Needing a game-changer before the Texas and Ohio primaries, the Clinton campaign put out the now famous 3 A.M. tackling Obama's capacity to handle a late-in-the-night crisis.
He's A Celebrity: In what became a theme of John McCain's campaign for several weeks, the GOP dubbed Barack Obama the "biggest celebrity in the world."
The Obama Infomercial: When you have historic fundraising efforts you can run historic ad campaigns. A thirty-minute infomercial on nearly every major network was remarkable both for its reach and for its content.
Is That Cross Floating?: Mike Huckabee ran an ad on the eve of Christmas that contained what appeared to be a floating cross in the background. The former governor said the spot was meant to bring in the Holiday cheer - a reprieve of sorts, from the negative advertising. But critics said it is religious exploitation.
Godless: Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-NC) ran an ad accusing her opponent Kay Hagan of hanging around a crowd of "godless" individuals who want to push an atheist agenda through Congress. Hagan filed a defamation suit in response.
San Francisco Values: Rep. Sam Graves (R-MO) put out a gay-baiting ad that -- with a disco beat in the back -- accusing his opponent of having "San Francisco values."
A Soldier's Voice: Senate candidate Tom Udall (D-NM) released an ad featuring a disabled veteran speaking, through a computer voice, about the candidate's work on behalf of people like him: "Thank you," Army Sgt. Erik Schel mouths out, with no voice to say it aloud.
Teaching Sex Ed: The McCain Campaign put out an ad that accused Obama of wanting to teach children about sex before teaching them how to read. The spot -- which does more than any other to turn negative the media's perception of the McCain candidacy -- is widely contested. The bill, Obama argued, was to help children learn what was inappropriate physical interaction, so as to protect them from predators.
Al Franken "Humiliates Minorities," Finds Rape Funny: Days after Norm Coleman disavows negative ads, the National Republican Senatorial Committee ran a spot against his opponent, Al Franken, accusing the former comedian of writing pornography, laughing at the disabled, humiliating minorities and demeaning women.
Not My Son: MoveOn.org's most memorable ad of the cycle, called "Not Alex," depicted a mother telling John McCain that she won't allow her son to go fight in his wars.
A Yellow Shower: Democratic Congressman Jim Slattery, running for a Kansan Senate seat, aired an ad that shows a business tycoon showering yellow liquid all over the small people below him. Viewers are led to believe he is peeing on them, only to be shown that it's really 'just' gasoline.
Hunting From A Plane: Defenders of Wildlife Action Fund Action Fund put out one of the most cutting ads against Sarah Palin on an unlikely topic -- her support for laws allowing wolves to be killed by plane:
I'm Sorry, Sort Of: Days after calling for an investigation into the un-American behavior of certain member of Congress -- looking at you, Obama -- Rep. Michelle Bachmann is forced to go on air with a non-apology, apology.
Was Obama A Muslim?: A fringe group called the National Campaign Fund cut a spot asking, "Was Barack Obama ever a Muslim?"
My Opponent Has "No Humanity Whatsoever": GOP Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart ran one of the most over-the-top negative ads of the cycle, featuring a police officer charging that Diaz-Balart's opponent "thinks he's better than all women," has "no humanity whatsoever," is the "most corrupt politician you have ever seen," and even once "beat up on a little tiny kid."
Gravel's Rock: Mike Gravel, who made a name for himself for saying quirky things during the Democratic primary debates, put out an equally bizarre ad in which he throws a giant rock into a pool of water.
The First Wright Ad: Though a variety of groups have now played the Wright card, the first and most controversial effort came by way of the North Carolina GOP. At the time, John McCain criticized the spot, which targeted two local Dems for supporting Barack Obama
Playing The Wright Card Nationally: In late October, the National Republican Trust launched a national ad campaign hammering Obama over his ties to his controversial, now-former pastor.
Franken's Wife Addresses Her Alcohol Addiction: Senate Candidate Al Franken put out an ad in which his wife talked about her struggle with alcoholism and her husband's help through the process. "The Al Franken I know stood by me through thick and thin," Franni Franken says. "So I know he'll always come through for Minnesotans." The spot softens Franken's image -- which had been under assault by the GOP.
About Those Medical Records: Robert Greenwald's Brave New Films and Democracy for America put out an ad highlighting doctors' concerns about John McCain's medical history. Several stations refused to run the spot:
Terror Through Our Borders: National Republican Trust Fund, an outside group with ties to GOP strategist Dick Morris, ran a spot that claims Obama's plan to grant licenses to illegal immigrants could lead to another 9/11. This might not even qualify as the group's most inflammatory spot.
Skin Color Distortion: The National Republican Congressional Committee ran an ad in Minnesota that local officials suggest distorted the skin color of the Democratic candidate for the seat, Ashwin Madia. Madia is a child of East Indian immigrants and a veteran of the Marines.
Using Palin's Wink: One week out from the general election, Obama's campaign ran an ad featuring the notorious wink of one Governor Sarah Palin:
Hair: Former Sen. John Edwards released a spot -- for the youtube debate -- that mocks his critics for focusing on how much he spends on a haircut at the expense of all the major world problems occurring.
Noun, Verb, 9/11: Rudy Giuliani put out a primary ad claiming that he didn't buckle during 9/11 while "the world" did, using footage from the attacks to drive the point home. "When the world wavered, and history hesitated, he never did."
Apologizing To Arabs: The GOP ran an ad against Tom Perriello, a congressional candidate from Virginia, that says he has "apologized to Arabs." Perriello, an international aid worker, had led efforts at cultural outreach to Arab countries.
GOP Ties Rabbi Opponent To Iran: Rep. Scott Garrett (R-NJ) released an ad that calls his Dem opponent Dennis Shulman an extremist and ties him to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The problem: Shulman is a Jewish rabbi.
We're All Joe The Plumber: Working class plumbers of the world... UNITE!
Playing The Ayers Card: The McCain campaign put out a lengthy ad going after Obama for being "friends" with domestic terrorist Bill Ayers. There are many spots just like this that McCain and fellow Republicans will release before and after. This one takes the prize because it goes into long detail about Ayer's past as a member of the Weather Underground as if Obama was someone connected to it.
Burning Down The House: Former Rep. Melissa Hart (R-PA) ran an ad accusing Democrats in Congress of blowing up America's fiscal house:
McCain's Online Challenge: The Obama campaign put out an ad accusing John McCain of being computer illiterate. There is some debate over whether this was a foot-in-the-mouth moment -- McCain's war wounds make it hard to type -- and even Sen. Joe Biden panned the ad.
Big John: John Cornyn, the Republican Senator from Texas, put out an ad that is widely mocked for its... overcompensation.
Y.M.C.A: Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS), facing a tough challenge, put out a spot tying former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove (D), a social conservative and economic populist, to the liberal Democratic leadership in Washington -- and apparently to the Village People as well. A man in a cowboy hat says he's from "the largest gay-rights group in the country."
McSame As Bush: Not novel, but certainly affective, the SEIU tied Bush and McCain on a whole host of issues.
My Opponent's Clinic Killed People: Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell accused Democratic businessman Bruce Lunsford's of running clinics that gave poor care to veterans: "I believe that the clinic helped kill my husband," says a widow in the ad.
Same Guy Appears In Ads For Both Candidates: One of the veterans in the (above) Mitch McConnell ad says he was lied to and his words taken totally out of context. That vet subsequently cut an ad on behalf of Bruce Lunsford. "Tricking veterans, twisting their words -- how low will Mitch McConnell go?" the announcer says.
He Might "Serve A Little Time In Jail": The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee launched a TV ad that features the audio of FBI tapes from Sen. Ted Stevens' (R-AK) corruption trial. The longtime Alaska Republican said in a worst case scenario he "might have to serve a little time in jail."
Playing The Keating Card: The Obama campaign, responding to news that McCain will attack Obama's character, played the Keating Five card, releasing a long quasi-documentary exploring McCain's actions in the 1980s scandal.
The FBI Is Wiretapping The Senator: The DSCC went after Alaska's Ted Stevens again, putting out an ad depicting fictional FBI agents monitoring the Senator and listing his alleged crimes: "And I voted for him," says a disappointed fictional agent.
Congressional Candidate Brings Back 'Daisy' Ad: Democratic House-aspirant Colleen Callaghan put out a spot that -- like the infamous "Little Daisy" ad -- warned of nuclear war should her opponent win. "Nuclear weapons can destroy life on our planet," the announcer says. "Aaron Shock said we should sell nuclear weapons to Taiwan."
GOPer Apologizes Over Abramoff Scandal: Rep. Tom Feeney (R-FL) put out ad apologizing to the camera for going on a five-year-old trip sponsored by the disgraced former lobbyist Jack Abramoff. "I embarrassed myself, embarrassed you, and for that I'm very sorry," Feeney says.
Being A POW Isn't That Great: Robert Greenwald's Brave New PAC and Democracy for America went up on national cable with a 30-second spot starring fellow McCain POW Phillip Butler, who says he knows from personal experience that a POW background is not desirable in a commander-in-chief.
Really Hating Our Troops: Tom McClintock, the GOP nominee for the open seat of scandal-plagued Rep. John Doolittle (R-CA), premiered an ad attacking Democrat Charlie Brown, an Air Force veteran, for attending an anti-war rally in 2005.
Candidate References "Our Churches" In Race Against Jew: House candidate Nikki Tinker, challenging Tennessee Rep. Steven Cohen in the Democratic primary, put out an ad that implicitly referenced Cohen's Jewish religion in a predominantly African American community.
I'm A Democrat With McCain: Bruce Lunsford, tried tying himself to McCain (the candidate likely to win in Kentucky), when he offered his own condemnation of Republican corruption: "John McCain singled out Mitch McConnell on corruption," the announcer says.
I'm A Republican With Obama: Sen. Gordon Smith, a Republican in a tough eleciton in Oregon, released a spot touting the work he did with Barack Obama and John Kerry -- the object of his ire back in 2004.
Likewise, endangered GOP Rep. Chris Shays of Connecticut put out an ad saying he possesses "the hopefulness of Obama."
A Stuttering Democrat: A GOP ad used audio of befuddled Democratic candidate Ronnie Musgrove tripping up during an interview: "Ronnie Musgrove," the announcer says. "He's either really confused -- or he wants us to be."
My Opponent Protects Rapists: Gordon Smith put out a spot accusing his opponent, Jeff Merkley, of conspiring to help a child rapist get released onto the streets. "Jeff Merkley, you should have voted to protect victims," a rape victim reads, "not rapists."
GOP Senator Responsible For My Son's Death: The DSCC released an ad against Sen. Norm Coleman (R-MN), featuring the parents of a Minnesota soldier who was killed in Iraq. "I don't blame the Army for our son's death," the mother says. "I just blame the bad policies on President Bush, Norm Coleman, who voted for this."
Hungry Like A Wolf: McCain put out an ad depicting Obama's oppo-researchers as hungry wolves going after Gov. Sarah Palin. The whole thing is based on a never-proven (see: likely false) report that the Democratic Party sent lawyers to Alaska to scour through Palin's record.
My Opponent's Supporters Are Dirty Hippies: The conservative group, Freedom's Watch, put out an ad hitting Senatorial candidate Mark Udall for supporting the Department of Peace. The spot features a 'hippy' backing Udall and walking into a VW van with a bunch of smoke coming out of it.
The Media Love Affair: The McCain campaign put out an ad that makes fun of the love Obama gets from the media -- the same group of people McCain once called his base.
Naked Men In Ads: Jim Slattery (who ran the tycoon peeing ad) put out an equally, err, nontraditional spot about people not being 'covered' by health insurance. To bring home the point he has people literally walking around uncovered by clothes.
The Hoff: Picking at Obama's big crowds in Europe, the Republican National Committee put out a spot comparing the Senator to David Hasselhoff.
Going Positive... For A Day: The McCain campaign spent a day touting a historic ad to come the closing night of the Democratic primary. It ended up being a spot in which the Arizona Republican looks into the camera and congratulates Obama for his achievement:
Counting Houses: The Obama campaign jumped on an interview in which McCain can't precisely say how many houses he owns. In an ad, the narrator declares: "When asked how many houses he owns, McCain lost track -- he couldn't remember... Well, it's seven. Seven houses."
Just Like This Other Corrupt Black Pol: The Tennessee GOP, which really pushed the envelop this cycle, put out a video linking Obama to Kwame Kilpatrick, the jailed former mayor of Detroit.
Race Card Inverted: A group called the National Black Republican Association launched a radio spot declaring that "the Democratic Party is a racist party," and that "racist Democrats will not vote for Obama, a black man." To top things off, they argue that: "Obama is an arrogant elitist who turned his back on poor blacks and his own country."
Making Fun Of His Name: A National Republican Congressional Committee spot makes light of Democratic nominee Don Cazayoux (pronounced CAZ-you) for his name. "Cazayoux, tax you,'" the narrator says. "Hard to spell, harder to pay for."
Lock Your Doors -- It's Me!: Senate candidate Mark Udall (D-CO), released an ad making fun of the attack ads being launched his way by outside groups. "Quick! Lock your doors and hide. It's me, Mark Udall," the candidate says. "I'm just kiddin'. You gotta keep a sense of humor, though."
READER SUGGESTIONS AND SERIOUS OVERSIGHTS: How did we miss these two?
Obama As Moses: The McCain campaign put out a web video proclaiming Obama, "The One." It fed the celebrity theme and brought it to a celestial level.
(A reader adds this humorous bit of commentary: "[McCain] is just jealous that Obama is getting all glory since McCain was old enough to say 'I knew Moses, I served with Moses and Obama, you're no Moses'")
Chuck Norris Approves This Message: Mike Huckabee turned to his favorite surrogate for this ad, leveling the equivalent of a political drop kick.
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