TIME IDEAS
The Case for Negative Campaign Ads

Negative advertising can raise legitimate questions about candidates and are actually good for democracy

It’s quite popular to condemn negative advertising. It’s a great applause line on the stump.

Newark Mayor Corey Booker recently got front-page headlines by condemning Obama’s ads about Romney and Bain Capital — until he had to take his comments back because, I would guess, the Republicans were using them as attack lines against the President. President Obama defended his negative ads, saying they are about Romney’s character and fair game. Romney started his own negative ads, though he quickly repudiated a proposed negative campaign against Obama that would have focused on the controversial Rev. Jeremiah Wright. And everyone condemned it, though it appears it was never even made and certainly never ran. That’s the first time I’ve seen just thinking about running negative ads condemned.

It was Johnson who ran the Daisy ad against Goldwater in 1964, but it’s the Republicans who popularized negative ads by using them broadly under Lee Atwater. To be fair, both sides use them now, but usually Republicans take the hit for being more negative. In 1996, we ran mostly negative or comparative ads for President Clinton while Bob Dole ran mostly positive ads, but 2-to-1 voters thought we were positive and the Republicans negative. We began all our negative ads with the phrase “Another negative ad from the Republicans…”

So I’ll say something unpopular. Negative ads are by and large good for our democracy. And when they are not — when they overreach unfairly, they boomerang and the people who ran them take a well-deserved hit. But when they focus us on something important — like who would make a better commander in chief, who would fix the economy or when they bring up past events that need a real vetting — they do a service. They don’t let politicians off the hook and hold them accountable for their past actions.

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