Attack ads don't work, except when they do

The Obama campaign seemed to have no regrets

As Paul notes, a new poll has found that 70% of respondents believe the attack ads launched by the Conservatives against Justin Trudeau are unfair. Maybe that means something. Maybe a few years from now we’ll be citing this survey with irony.

Three years ago, Nanos found that attack ads launched against Michael Ignatieff had left 65% of respondents with a more negative view of Stephen Harper. Angus Reid and Ipsos Reid also found negative impacts on the Prime Minister. Two years later, Mr. Harper had a majority mandate and Mr. Ignatieff’s political career was over.

In reviewing the latest science on campaign advertising last year, Sadie Dingfelder suggested the fears about a backlash against attack ads (at least in the United States) were dissipating, but NPR found that the evidence of effectiveness was mixed. That said, attack ads have at least one public proponent: the senior strategist for Barack Obama’s re-election campaign.

David Axelrod, Obama’s ­senior strategist, felt he had been given a gift. For months, he had worried that the Romney campaign would find a way to present its candidate in a compelling fashion. But as far as Axelrod could tell, the Romney campaign had no such strategy. “I questioned why they didn’t spend more time and ­energy early defining Romney in a fuller way so people could identify with him,” Axelrod said in a postelection interview. “One of my conclusions is so much of his life was kind of walled off from use. His faith is important to him, but they didn’t want to talk about that. His business was important, but they didn’t want to talk about that much. His governorship was important to him, but his signature achievement [health care] was unhelpful to them in the Republican primary. My feeling is you have to build a candidacy on the foundation of biography. That is what authenticates your message. I was always waiting for that happen.”

Axelrod jumped at the opening. In a major gamble, the Obama campaign moved $65 million in advertising money that had been budgeted for September and October into June, enabling the president to unleash a series of attacks that would define Romney at a time when the Republican would have little money to respond. From Axelrod’s viewpoint, the timing was perfect. Romney had been weakened by assaults from fellow GOP candidates during the primaries. Romney alienated many Hispanics by suggesting that illegal immigrant families should “self-deport,” and he said he had been a “severely conservative” governor, hurting his strategy to move to the middle for the general election.

Mr. Trudeau has stated a general aversion to negativity—which is perhaps a principled position, but also surely at least something of a political calculation—but it will be interesting to see what that means in practice. Will his adverts avoid all criticism of the government side? Will they include criticism, but also happy thoughts and smiley images?

A few years ago, in the midst of an earlier round of attack ads, I compiled some of the scathing reviews those ads received and was (perhaps rightly) mocked for doing so. The general discussion around attack ads risks becoming like the general discussion around civility, in which we all rend our garments over some vague idea—undefinable at best, simplistic at worst—that things should be somehow better. I tend to agree that our politics should not be soul-crushingly awful to watch and participate in. I suppose the most virulent demagoguery should be discouraged and we should hope to never get to a point at which outright lies are accepted as acceptable. But past that, it is all in the eye of the beholder. One man’s destructive attack ad is another’s necessary critique.

If I was making the rules, there would be only two restrictions on attack ads. No disintegrating children. And no home invasions.