Though this campaign season has been marked by wide use of negative campaign ads by both parties, RAW STORY has found that they have not had their intended—and usual—impact this election season.
Both left- and right-wing observers have commented upon the unusual viciousness of this campaign season, usually with disdain. But the tactics have continued, as in every election season, because, typically, they're remarkably effective.
This year is proving to be the exception.
In 1988, when Michael Dukakis and George H.W. Bush were competing for the presidency, the Republicans released a campaign ad—now infamously dubbed the Willie Horton ad—that many believed cost Dukakis the presidency.
In that commercial, Dukakis was criticized for supporting a weekend furlough program for convicted felons. Willie Horton, one of the felons allowed to leave prison for the weekend, didn't return and, months later, was arrested after assaulting a man and raping his fiance.
The ad has become an archetype for the sort of campaigning—wherein candidates are ascribed direct guilt for the consequences of a policy they support—that has marked political races ever since.
This season, though, that tactic has proved to be poisonous for the candidates who've employed it. Several races across the country have been marked by ads and press releases that hearken back to 1988, but in every case, the Republican candidate who's used it finds her-or-himself behind in the polls by a seemingly insurmountable margin.
In Indiana, Rep. John Hostettler is on the cusp of losing his long-held congressional seat to popular Vanderburgh County Sheriff Brad Ellsworth. Several weeks ago, polls showed the two opponents in a tight race. Hostettler, in his usual way, wasn't doing much fundraising, but many thought that NRCC efforts would, as they had in the past, pull him to victory in November.
Since then, however, Republican scandals have made that outcome seem unlikely, and Hostettler's use of a radio campaign ad hasn't helped him. In August, the Evansville Courier & Press printed a transcript of the ad that read in part:
"[L]iberals are trying to cover up Sheriff Brad Ellsworth's release not long ago of a dangerous inmate who then murdered a mother of three and two of her friends....Ellsworth kept the would-be murderer in work release, claiming he had only failed one drug test there. And Ellsworth didn't believe in one strike and you're out. But according to press accounts, this killer failed not one, but five drug tests on Ellsworth's watch."
The ad didn't mention that Ellsworth, as Sheriff, took office after the work-release program had been instituted, and did not have the authority to suspend it. At the time, a source in the Ellsworth campaign told RAW STORY, "We're a little worried about how that ad's gonna affect the race... the fact is that Sheriff Ellsworth has tried to tighten the work release program. But he inherited it and his hands are tied about it."
A spokesman for the DCCC told RAW STORY, "That was one of the Republicans' strongest attacks. We didn't really want to do anything that would make it an issue."
Today, though, Ellsworth enjoys a wide lead in Indiana, and polls and analysis indicate that he is favored to win.
In New York's 24th Congressional district, Michael Arcuri, who has been a popular district attorney for more than 10 years, was assailed with the following ad:
The ad appeared just days after a different commercial was pulled by Republicans for inaccurately accusing Arcuri's campaign of using election funds to call a phone sex line. The number for that phone sex line, however, differed only in the area code from the state's Department of Criminal Justice Services office number, which appeared on the same hotel phone bill just one minute after the 800-number for the phone sex line had been dialed.
Today, Arcuri enjoys a lead of as much as 11 points over his rival, Ray Meier, with whom he is competing to replace Rep. Sherwood Boehler, who is retiring after more than 20 years.
Spokeswoman Haley Runback of the Arcuri campaign tells RAW STORY that the ads are ineffective because Republicans are presenting a weaker platform and because constituents are "turned off" by this type of campaigning. "I think it's both," Runback says. "[Arcuri] wouldn't have been re-elected as DA if he were responsible" for the premature release of a dangerous criminal.
In the race for the Minnesota Senate seat being vacated by Democrat Mark Dayton, Amy Klobuchar has been dogged for supposedly being soft on crime by the National Republican Senatorial Committee. A recent press release—available here—reads in part: "If Amy Klobuchar had put Antonio Woodard in jail for any of his previous crimes to the extent the law allowed, he would not have been free to commit murder....Klobuchar's repeated failure to live up to her campaign promises have made Minnesotans less safe."
Though spokespeople for the Klobuchar campaign could not be reached for comment in time for publication, today Klobuchar enjoys a double digit lead in state polls.
Spokespeople for the NRSC and the NRCC did not immediately respond to requests for comment.