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September 15th, 2008
05:12 PM ET

Attack ads hit an all-time low

Editor's note: Darrell M. West is vice president and director of Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. and the author of "Air Wars: Television Advertising in Election Campaigns, 1952-2004."

Darrell M. West
Vice President/Director of Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution

Negative attacks are as American as apple pie. Since the early days of the republic, candidates attacked with a vigor that contemporary strategists would admire.

In the 1800 presidential election, for example, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams criticized one another with a stunning ferocity on everything from foreign and domestic policy to private character and personal behavior.

Later campaigns weren't much better. Critics of Andrew Jackson in 1836 accused him of murdering Indians. In 1884, Grover Cleveland was ridiculed for fathering an illegitimate child. William Jennings Bryan was characterized as a dangerous radical in 1896 who would ruin the economy.

Despite these historical precedents, the 2008 campaign has reached all-time lows in the use of misleading and inaccurate political appeals. Even Karl Rove, the architect of negative ads in previous campaigns, has complained about the tenor of this year's campaign.

John McCain broadcast an ad taking Barack Obama's words out of context and suggesting Democrats were trying to compare GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin to a pig. The McCain campaign ran another spot erroneously claiming Obama favored comprehensive sex education for kindergarteners.

Keep reading...


Filed under: Barack Obama • John McCain • Raw Politics
soundoff (40 Responses)
  1. Edgar Robles

    It's so obvious to see McCain's strategy. Paint the media as the liberal left, while they try to get away with lies and the real issues that plague this country. Sorry to say to all those right wings cynics but I have to agree with Obama when he says this is more of the same politics. The McCain Camp is blatting lied and deserves the honest questioning that the media has been requesting and denied time and time again from the McCain Camp. Candy Crowley needs to call as she sees it and although I understand her attempt to stay neutral on as this is CNN, on this particular issue you can't compare Obama's so called stretched truths to McCain’s blatant lies. Thank you David Gergen and Mark Halpart for calling it for the way you see it rather than to take the safe route and letting all the cynics get away with their plague on this country. AC you rock.

    September 15, 2008 at 11:42 pm |
  2. Dale

    Tara,

    Mis-informed again! It's OK, most Liberals are! It's 7 houses! He fought for all 7 too! What has Obama done for this country? Run it down! His wife said she has never been proud of this country until now! I have always been proud of my country, no matter who is President!

    Dale

    September 15, 2008 at 11:26 pm |
  3. ron

    This is insane. The report on the lies out of the McCain campaign on Cooper's report ends with "on both sides." Give me a friggin' break. At what point does the media recognize that because two sides make a claim, it doesn't mean they have to report "both sides." Some people think the alignment of stars affects mental illness but no science reporter in his or her right mind would give "equal time" to these positions. Why can't they call a lie a lie like real reporters used to do?

    September 15, 2008 at 11:21 pm |
  4. John

    You talk about lies – most of these comments are lies. You want an Obama lie – how about fighting in Iraq for 100 years. McCain never said we would be fighting that war for 100 years.

    September 15, 2008 at 11:13 pm |
  5. Mike

    As usual you McCain fans are spouting mistruths. The article states that the Democrats also are guilty of stretching the truth – it is just that McCain's lies in the ads are really bad. Even Rove agrees on that point. Research people. The truth shall set you free.

    September 15, 2008 at 10:59 pm |
  6. Ted

    Did Candy Crowley pick up her check from McCain campaign tonight yet? Her answer to Anderson's question tonight about whether the lies and distortions were balanced or fair – something like that – was disgraceful. She spent two mins. attacking Obama for one comment – and never said a word about how McCain's campaign has been 100% focused on telling lies and distortions about Obama's record and positions. Her answer even left David Gergen speechless – I don't think he could believe that a respected journalist could just ignore the fact that McCain has run a shameful campaign that has lied and distorted the truth in basically every ad and speech by himself and his campaign spokespeople.

    September 15, 2008 at 10:58 pm |
  7. Lori

    Am I the only person who remembers when candidates put on ads about their platform? As part of the unaffiliated, I am surprised that everyone joins this act of picking at each other like chickens instead of DEMANDING their own candidates declare their positions and solutions on the real issues. I hear a great deal of promissory language, but no real facts on how to make these solutions occur. Are they afraid the current administration would take action on their plans stealing their thunder or is it all fiction? Wake up Americans! Push for details.

    September 15, 2008 at 10:30 pm |
  8. Laura-Lacey, Washington

    The way McCain is running his campaign shows me that he doesn't care about America in the slightest.

    September 15, 2008 at 10:28 pm |
  9. Fran

    I can’t believe that Americans are willing to vote for McCain/Palin, who are continuously deceiving the American public with false statements. Did we not have enough of dealing with the deceitful tactics of the Bush Administration? If they are lying to us right now, can you imagine if they make it to the White House. “Thanks but no thanks…” They can take their bridge to nowhere and take their lies with them.

    September 15, 2008 at 10:24 pm |
  10. TT - Illinois

    cnn

    although I watch your news broadcasts, I don't believe a single political word you say anymore . So I couldn't care less if you think McCain is lying. You lost your neutral credibility with me a long time ago. You've made your preference for Obama well known, and your efforts at tearing Bristol Palin apart were the last straw.
    Keep harping about McCain, you'll turn more and more people his direction. American's love soldiers and underdogs.

    September 15, 2008 at 10:16 pm |
  11. Ron , West Coast

    The republicrooks have always gone negative in their campaigning.
    So what else is new ? John McBush , said he would`nt have negativity as part of his campaign , YEAH RIGHT....
    Anyone who puts their trust in the republicrooks to run a decent above board campaign , should consider a Bridge I want to sell up in Alaska....

    September 15, 2008 at 10:16 pm |
  12. Chris

    I'm not sure why were still talking about pigs and lipstick, the media has shown that John Mccain, John Edwards, and several other politicians have used the expression lipstick on a pig, Heck Iv heard it myself in political speechs.
    I also watched the speech and Cindy your wrong Obama, was not speaking of Gov Palin, no way no how.

    I agree with a lot of the folks blogging, and actually I agree with Karl Rove, this has got to dirty, and needs to stop.

    I hope the American people can see through this garbage, and elect the right team to get the country back on track.

    Obama 08

    September 15, 2008 at 10:03 pm |
  13. Neil

    After watching your election neither one of these tickets should be elected to anything. If these two are the best that America has to offer no wonder your country is in such trouble.

    September 15, 2008 at 10:00 pm |
  14. Amy C.

    I would really love to ask the Republic party a question about their lamest and most irritating arguments,that ALWAYS comes up when they are asked about the low life tactics and out right lies that McCain has been employing. They Always revert to "Well if Obama would have just agreed to Town Hall meetings then this wouldn't be happening!" How outragous! I would like some to ask them ...seriously "So if he does a town hall meeting then what?...the Republics will just stop running adds against him? They have to make up lies and smear him because he didn't agree to THM"S? Are they somehow implying that HE is to blame for their lies against him?

    September 15, 2008 at 9:59 pm |
  15. KJ

    Obama is just as much to blame for neg. attack ads. He currently is attacking McCain for his lack of use of email. I have family that has served in the military- how disrespectful can this man continue to be towards those who have served in the military?

    McCain's arms were broken while he was a prisoner of war. Even an idot would know he has limited use of his arms. You can see that when he goes to shake someones hand or wave.

    I am a fan of Obama (I have been won over), and I am an Independent. However, this kind of attacks, will loose him more votes in the end than it will ever gain.

    As for the attacks on Palin, everyone needs to rethink their attacks. The goal here is to get Obama elected, right? I know several people (and I am sure there is many more in the US) that are going to vote for McCain/Palin because they are also working moms. The feel each time she is attacked- they are attacked- no matter what the issues are about.

    September 15, 2008 at 9:56 pm |
  16. Tara in Tennessee

    Dear Dale,
    If John McCain can afford NINE houses, he can afford an adpative computer. He lives in the stone age because he was born back then!

    September 15, 2008 at 9:48 pm |
  17. lynn

    Cindy: Since you brought it up.
    , what is a lie that Obama has told in an ad?? You can't just claim it..

    Today in a news conference with AP and Florida newspapers, McCain once again stated that Obama did not call Sarah Palin a pig but still stood by his ads anyway. I think the lowest ad though was the one that McCain contends that Obama wants to teach kindergarten children sex education. The part of the program aimed at kindergarten children is to help them with strategies to deal with pedophiles.

    To me these speaks to integrity, trust and honor. McCain is demonstrating that he is lacking in all three as he and his running mate continue to repeat the same lies over and over again.

    September 15, 2008 at 9:29 pm |
  18. David

    I can not believe that anyone in the their right mind would vote for the Republican ticket this year. Your going to see a lot of "fear" tactics thrown into this campaign, more so than before.

    Wake up people!!! Our economy is in a spiral downward.

    When the curtain is pulled, do the right thing. Put your prejudice aside, vote for change, real change. Don't give into fear.

    Just think, if you vote for McCain and something happens to him, an inexperienced person will have the codes, keys, and the ability to push the button. And believe me, she will push the button. At that time, our precious world will come to an end.

    September 15, 2008 at 9:29 pm |
  19. Shane

    Mccain offered Obama for 10 town hall meetings where only people ask them questions about economy etc... It seems to me that he is the one that is afraid of talking about the economy and not Mccain. I know where Mccain stands on this issue longer than Obama in politics. So to say that the attack ads are in an all time low is frankly being a little too kind on both sides and it should get even more frequent. Face it folks, ads won't change anything since there's 1/2 months left anyways, people have made up there minds. And to say that those ads don't ring a certain truth is being naive. It might be exagerated but don't come and tell me there completely false on both sides.

    September 15, 2008 at 9:21 pm |
  20. Carol, PA

    I wish these ads would all be stopped. It is a diservice to the American people. We need more televised debates. Not townhall meetings or scripted interviews, but debates that are real and that the candidates are both given a chance to respond. They need to be forced to answer questions about their plans, not topic discussions and empty promises. I hate to hear a question answered with what their opponents have said or "wants". Allow them to answer only for themselves. Perhaps then, intelligent decisions can be made!

    September 15, 2008 at 9:11 pm |
  21. Annie Kate

    Both sides seem to be equally bad on the negative ads. Its too bad we can't send both to the corner and give them a cooling off period. The ads right now only detract from the candidates – and usually from the one running the ad and not the one attacked. Where is the new politics that was talked about so much? I haven't seen it yet.

    Annie Kate
    Birmingham AL

    September 15, 2008 at 9:11 pm |
  22. Anita P.

    I am disappointed in John McCain and the desperate comments he and his staff have made in recent days. It is obvious his plans to improve the status of the middle class. They are minimal at best and not part of his straight talk express. He flip-flopped on the Bush tax cuts for the top 5% of the wealthiest in the U.S. He was a maverick of the senate, unfortunately the political pressure to bow down to the conservative base has finally beat him down. He was so desperate he picked Sarah Palin!!!

    September 15, 2008 at 8:57 pm |
  23. George in Arizona

    The mudslinging and name calling continues. I am sorry. Both campaigns had resorted to low-class tactics. I am neither a registered Democrat or Republican but Obama has been attacking long before McCain. He just has been very subtle. But, both parties have taken it low. And I am sick and tired of the attempts underway to destroy, yes destroy, Gov. Palin. I do not agree with her on all issues but I do believe she is a viable candidate. But, had McCain selected a man for his running mate, you would never have seen such an attempt to destroy him as the Obama camp is trying to do to Palin. Isn't it time we, the American people, found a way to make the candidates address the issues and not each other? By the way, as a business man, I do not believe Obama has the answers to the economy. I am not so sure McCaine does either but he realizes it is NOT the PResident who will fix the economy – its really Congress. Of course, Congress is failing miserably – worse numbers than Bush. One last comment. Let's be honest. Obama really does not have much of a record to run on nor much experience. Palin does not have that much more (in terms of years) but it is more in line with Presidential responsibilities than Obama's.

    September 15, 2008 at 8:54 pm |
  24. Loretta

    I just heard that we should prepare ourselves for more, or more specifically the Swift boat attack ads. I'm sick to death of these attack ads. They rarely have anything to do with the issues that the American people are facing today.

    September 15, 2008 at 8:15 pm |
  25. Kristi in KC missouri

    I am waiting for a campaign ad with the mantra "Carbon Paper, Baby, Carbon Paper!"

    September 15, 2008 at 8:09 pm |
  26. Dale

    It appears that CNN has successfully scared the crap out of it's viewers with the gloom and doom approach to this election. CNN and it's liberal biased reporters should be ashamed for scaring these poor uninformed people. We The People will produce change, not a Senator that was in office 143 days before he announced that he would seek the Presidency of The United States. Obama recently ran an ad saying that John McCain could not send an e-mail or use a computer. Do you Democrats ever stop to ask why he can't? It's because of his war injuries that he got protecting this country and the Freedom of Speech that we enjoy. His fingers are not limber enough to type! Look it up! Read! Be informed! You Democrats should wake up and quit your whining. This is America, act like Americans!

    September 15, 2008 at 7:32 pm |
  27. Rose from Muscoy, Calif

    Negative ads started with McCain it's a Republican thing. This year the country is BROKE! So, the Republicans can't blame it all at the CONGRESS? tHE REPUBLICANS ruled it for almost 8 years. Now the Democrates just came in last years... So, the political ads are getting NASTY and personal what else can the Republicans do? And John McCain like he is attacking his own party is that FUNNY OR WHAT? If I remembers so clearly Bush did help McCain raised some money, for McCain, right? And the convention Bush show his face there in wide-screen, right? Well, GET A CLUE PEOPLE!

    September 15, 2008 at 7:17 pm |
  28. bill brady

    pigs like to sling mud and all the mud thirsty americans like to watch it. we need to change what we want to see as a country only then will it get better.

    September 15, 2008 at 7:11 pm |
  29. Stacy

    Lumping the 527's in with the ads from the actual campaigns is completely disingenuous. You used examples of ads from McCain's campaign attacking Obama and then tried to balance that with ads done by "outside groups" attacking McCain, thus muddling your argument. You're right, voters do need to be vigilant. And articles like this one is one of the reasons. Stop with the fake balance!

    September 15, 2008 at 7:05 pm |
  30. ruth stoker

    As a Christian I would not be involved in the mud myself Mr. faith based minister.

    September 15, 2008 at 7:04 pm |
  31. keith

    Well obama is a christian, is that another term for black liberation theology?

    September 15, 2008 at 7:03 pm |
  32. Sarah

    I am appalled at the McCain/Palin Republican slime fest. Any good Christian would NOT be involved in these lies and sleaze for personal gain. Liars and hypocrites! This is absolutely a disreputable abuse of the words "Christian" and "values" since this McCain/Palin ticket obviously has neither.

    McCain/Palin make a daily mockery of the American People in their attempt to lie and manipulate their way into the White House..

    Furthermore, now that it appears they have been caught with their hand in the cookie jar of lies so to speak, their defense is to point at the Democratic ticket and try to place some kind of fabricated blame on Obama/Biden.

    Well, I have eyes that see and ears that hear and I will trust my own eyes and ears more than this dishonest rhetoric from the Republican ticket .

    As far as I can see, Obama has tried to run a campaign that is free of lies and fabrications. He may be a Democrat, but on the scales of truth and justice, Obama wins by a large margin.

    McCain has lost his honor and his integrity as he has sold out these precious commodities in his effort to gain the White House.

    More lies, misrepresentations and sleaze from the Republican ticket......Outrageous!

    September 15, 2008 at 6:58 pm |
  33. Brenda Harris

    You go John.
    How about the one that says Mccain the maverick has reformed Washington. TEE HEE If that's the truth; I don't want 4 more of the same.

    September 15, 2008 at 6:54 pm |
  34. keith

    Why is it easier to hit an all-time low; the internet allows for editing anything that shows up and feeding it back out to the masses as something that is supposed to be truth.

    September 15, 2008 at 6:27 pm |
  35. Jo Ann

    Mr. West,

    Although you seem to put more of the blame on the McCain campaign, Obama has run his share of negative attack ads and even reiterated them during his stump speeches. I disagree with you on the “lipstick comment.” I heard the entire speech and it was not taken out of any context that would alter the fact that it was a direct insult aimed at Governor Palin. You would have to be a fool not to see that this was more than a coincidence after she made her pit bull “lipstick" remark. Look at the audience’s reaction; they knew what Obama meant.

    Nothing the candidates say after they start running for office makes any difference to me because they will only say what is needed to get elected. I will vote on their qualifications and their already established records in order to make my decision. I compare their accomplishments and lack there of to the promises they made. I am not even sure the debates help unless what is said can be backed up by what the candidate has accomplished in the past.

    No amount of bells and whistles, fireworks, or celebrity endorsements will have any effect on how I will vote. In fact, the more “distractions” I see, the less likely I am to vote for that candidate. The problem is that the general public is easily swayed by superficial bells and whistles, just ask Madison Avenue.

    Jo Ann
    North Royalton, Ohio

    September 15, 2008 at 6:20 pm |
  36. Arachnae

    This article is guilty of what it purports to decry. By first citing official McCain campaign ads that are proven to be false, then claiming democrats are not above reproach on the basis of ads placed by outside groups, the author clearly means to prove the thesis 'everyone is equally to blame'.

    The Obama campaign has no authority over outside groups and if you can't find equally mendacious official ads from them, your equivalence fails, and this comparison is dishonest.

    Physician, heal thyself.

    September 15, 2008 at 5:54 pm |
  37. john cook

    As a faith based minister, while sitting in my study conceplating on my Sunday sermon, a question came to my attention about Sara Paline. Is she a Christian whose a politician, or a politician whose a Christian because the two are not the same. A Christian who is a politician would not be involved in lies and scandals as herself. This is really something we the people needs to consider when in the voting booth on election day.

    September 15, 2008 at 5:41 pm |
  38. Presley

    There is an under current though, that is always undervalued and overly exploited, the lack of attention span of the viewing public.
    These ads are designed to undermine and make our cups over runneth with falsities and dramas. Of course they are going to distort, how else will they get our attention, get it?
    McCain's ads are the most vile this election season IMO.

    September 15, 2008 at 5:37 pm |
  39. Cindy

    I think that both campaigns are pushing it a bit with these smear ads. They need to get back to the real issues and be truthful when they speak about them. It's SO easy to fact check now a days so why do they keep on doing this nonsense?

    The fact is Obama does just as much as McCain. In the article they only name things McCain has done...showing once again the bias in the media. The truth is Obama lies a lot! So why 360 have you done two posts today calling out McCain's negative ads but none on Obama. Pull your skirt down CNN...your bias is showing!!

    Cindy...Ga.

    September 15, 2008 at 5:35 pm |
  40. MW

    McCain is acting like a High School Bully. He has sold his soul to try to win this election. He has no honor or integrity. What should we expect from a man that cheated on his wife with numerous women and ended up dumping her to marry one of those women. He is a slime and his crazy religious fanatic running mate is worse than he is.

    September 15, 2008 at 5:21 pm |