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Mudslinging Not About To Go Away

Good Question: How negative is too negative?
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CBS4's Alan Gionet interviews participants in the Warrior Dash at Copper Mountain about political ads. (credit: CBS)

CBS4’s Alan Gionet interviews participants in the Warrior Dash at Copper Mountain about political ads. (credit: CBS)

Alan Gionet Good Question
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Election Day is nine weeks away, and we can expect to see even more campaign ads. There’s a good chance many more will be negative ads. That made CBS4’s Alan Gionet wonder “How negative is too negative?” Read his Good Question report below.

Written by Alan GionetCOPPER MOUNTAIN, Colo. (CBS4) – They slog through the mud at the annual Warrior Dash, a race with an obstacle course concluding with a slog through mud pit.

Reminds some of politics.

“They should let the candidates jump in that mud pit and just hurl at each other, actual mud,” said one competitor.

It might make for a cleaner campaign.

Negative politics started quickly in the early days of the Republic. It was an immediate test of the power of the First Amendment of the Constitution, allowing for free speech – even if it was outlandish. The Federalists claimed Thomas Jefferson was the progeny of a half-breed Indian and a mulatto father. Jefferson’s people claimed John Adams was had a “hermaphroditical character.”

Um, not sure what they were getting at there, but it was back in 1800, so it takes a little historical perspective.

“Here in Colorado, being a state that’s likely to be a battleground state, they’re just going to be ubiquitous between now and the election,” said Michael Berry, professor of political science at University of Colorado Denver.

We asked if it’s a tactic of defining opinions of candidates early?

“Once those are formed, those more solidified ideas or opinions about candidates are difficult to move once they’re solidified or anchored in a certain spot,” said Berry. “Most voters right now, are not paying attention, those that are paying attention, most of them know who they’re going to vote for.”

It’s the undecided voters who will make up the crucial part of the electorate.

But we can’t stand negative ads that now saturate the airwaves and the web.

“You know what, they wouldn’t do it, but if you do pound away with it, and it’s relevant to the public. It’s going to work,” said Greg Warner, a former Leo Burnett ad agency vice president and current lecturer in the Daniels College of Business at the University of Denver.

He adds that many of us think we’ll check out the facts, but don’t. Let’s face it, we’re busy.

“When it does get very mean spirited I think that’s when it can backfire on you,” said Warner.

“You look at say President Obama as a brand, he’s a brand. And he stands for certain things. And if he’s too negative, this whole thing can backfire on him.”

But he also admits the ad people go with what works.

“I think that their researchers and their people look at the numbers and they see it’s working and they say, hey it’s working, keep it up.”

And so they do — non-stop, it seems.

The infamous Supreme Court decision Citizens United v. The Federal Elections Commission that prohibited the government from limiting money spent on speech by corporations and unions only opened the door for mudslinging even more.

One spectator at the Warrior Dash race said he was getting calls five and six times a day.

“So by the time it comes to vote, they’re going to be sick of it, they’re not going to do it.”

“That kind of alienation toward both candidates both parties, the political system in general. I think that’s the risk in terms of some of these negative campaign ads,” said Berry.

But it’s generally not directed at the specific campaigns.

Negative ads can go to almost a limitless extent because they rarely backfire and often just keep voters away. And that is how the negative ads work.

“The main effect that it has is a demobilizing effect on the electorate, that people aren’t more likely to vote for one candidate or against another candidate but they are slightly less likely to vote,” said Berry.

And in a toss-up state like Colorado, the intent is to keep the other guy’s supporters at home, sick of politics.

Is it too negative? Yes.

Does it pull the whole process further into the mud? Yes.

But is it going to stop? Not unless you leave the toss up state.

Jefferson and Adams found it worked.

Obama and Romney are still bathing in that muddy water today.

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