Letter to the Editor

Be a smart voter: How to evaluate attack ads

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

It's negative ad season. How many days in a row or total days in this election cycle have you heard or seen negative political ads? Want to bring back more civility to campaigning? Here are some suggestions for rewarding candidates who run positive and issue-focused commercials and protesting those who resort to negative, fear-based ads.

What is a negative ad? Let's use a common-sense definition. Precious few are positive, describing only the character and policies of a candidate. Far too many ads focus on the "vile" opponent. Most are a blend of pros and cons, but I consider an ad negative if it meets these criteria: a) the content focuses on the opponent; b) it opens with sound and fury about the opposition; and c) more attention is given to the opponent's character than legitimate policy differences. Attack ads accuse the opponent's behaviors as being everything from shady to criminal, and in the extreme insinuate the opponent is a representative of dark forces destroying our democracy. What should you look for specifically?

First, begin by realizing each day incumbents run negative ads is another day they avoid telling us what they have accomplished or propose to achieve. Conversely, challengers using negative ads can fail to disclose significant background and priority details. Call it the "ratio test." To me, incumbents who run significantly more negative than positive ads signal embarrassment of their slim record. Office-seekers with a high ratio of negative ads suggest to me persons who aren't well qualified or who can’t articulate clear policies. Wouldn't it be nice if non-partisan groups such as the League of Women Voters or media outlets provided us with data on the number of negative/positive ads run by candidates?

A second test is to analyze the ad's "climate." Attack ads use displeasing colors, pictures, words and music to paint opponents as unworthy if not criminal. Negative ads are loaded with labels that encourage us to stereotype and not think. Divisive descriptors like "radical," "extreme," "liberal," "conservative," "left wing" and "far right" appeal to our prejudices. Rather than referring to legislation by its proper name, crude substitutions are made — "death tax" rather than estate tax. Typically, politicians in power don't like critical phone callers or rally protesters. Beware of commercials that imply dissenters are not patriots and that they, our elected employees, have been "abused" and "attacked" by "angry mobs." This nation was founded by dissenters; it is part of our DNA. Don't vote for candidates who want us to curtail free speech and prefer us to react to stereotypes rather than weigh alternative solutions.

A third test is to look for the sponsor(s) of the negative ads – you often need to look at the fine print at the end. Are the spot announcements provided by special interest political action groups, major political parties or are they supported by small donors? To what extent are the issues of these commercials local, regional or national? Do they favor or criticize certain ethnic groups, sexual orientations, economic policies or environmental stances? Do the cited statistics and trends promote understanding or fear? Are they accurate or do they shade the truth, saying precious little about their candidates' legislative records? Personally, I favor candidates with local and small donor support.

A fourth test is what solutions the candidates recommend. Do their ads attack the opponent's party and imply only their party can solve the problem? There are meaningful different opinions about what policies need to be addressed in Iowa and the nation. They include the budget – crisis or surplus? — school support – strangled or satisfactory? — Medicaid — debacle or decent? — and mental health facilities – lacking or laudable? These issues are complex, and past history indicates the best solutions have had bi-partisan support. How often do candidates favor working across party lines to address these complex matters?

I'm voting for those candidates who stand up for their record, not those who hide behind others for their failures, and those who see their rivals as worthy opponents rather than villains. Vote on Nov. 6!

Charles Kniker