Negative Political Ads

Chris Matthews hit Bernie Sanders pretty hard the other night on Hardball for his new Goldman Sachs ad, which points out that the firm recently paid fines for banking law violations that helped damage the economy in 2008.  The ad goes on to remind Americans that none of the people responsible faced criminal prosecution – though actual humans acted to break the law. These individual Wall Street bankers, the ad notes, get away with this because they contribute to political campaigns and pay huge speaking fees to politicians.  The ad does not mention Hillary Clinton at all – but because Clinton has a relationship with Goldman Sachs that includes both campaign contributions and speaking fees, Matthews characterized this as a slam on the Secretary.

Sanders has a reputation as a clean campaigner and has said several times that he won’t go negative in his race against Hillary Clinton.  After showing several clips of Sanders saying he’s never used a negative ad and won’t start now Mathews showed the spot and then spent several minutes making a claim that Sanders has changed strategy and “gone negative.” 

It’s hard to know whether Matthews wants to damage the Sanders campaign or just gin up some drama on the Democratic side to complement the fun Republicans are having.  But this discussion begs questions about the definition of a “negative campaign ad.”  Academics discuss this in terms of attack ads that draw attention to opponents’ character or policy weaknesses and contrast ads that imply superior character or policy positions on the part of the sponsoring candidate.

Sanders’ spot makes a point about big banks and oligarchs that his campaign has focused on since it began.  A key to his argument is that corporations and wealthy Americans  have co-opted the political and policy processes – and avoided criminal prosecution for bona fide crimes – by using their wealth to buy off politicians and candidates.  Further, he argues that this has destroyed the middle class and thereby the economy and has to change.  It’s hard to see how he makes his political case without pointing this our clearly.

But is it an attack ad directed at Clinton?  It certainly implies that Goldman Sachs bought lax enforcement with campaign contributions and speaking fees, and this is a serious charge.  To the extent it applies to Clinton, it certainly points out something about the candidate that voters might not like.  But it mentions no candidate or official specifically, so it’s a bit hard to see this specific ad as a complaint about how Wall Street bankers avoided the consequences of their actions that fits Sanders’ overall narrative.

Clearly voters should sanction candidates that make unsubstantiated charges in campaign ads, or trash opponents with push polls.  But I can’t think of anything unfair about pointing out an opposing candidate’s policy positions or shameful actions.  Reminding religious voters about serial adultery or liberal voters about racism and bigotry helps them understand the electoral context.  And it’s important to remember that this information will strike some voters as positive – libertines might actually prefer a candidate who flouts social convention and bigots will benefit from discovering racism in candidates if this helps them decide.  So “negative” is in the mind of the beholder.

Two things in closing: first, characterizing a campaign as “negative” strikes me as a media tool they can use to criticize campaigns they don’t like.  So Chris Matthews attacks the Sanders campaign for negativity when the ad in question seems perfectly legitimate and not directed against Clinton in any event.  Second, and more theoretically, I wonder how this fits into the normative framing we use to evaluate these things.  If I”m running for office and my opponent calls me an atheist, many would cry foul – that’s an attack on his character!  But I don’t in fact believe in God, and though many would call saying so out loud an insult I would respond that pointing this out simply states the facts.  I am what I am and that’s all that I am – and if I cannot defend it, I should just stay home.


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