'The dirtiest ever'
"The 2008 campaign will be the dirtiest ever," predicts Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. "There will be no sitting president or vice president running, and the last time that happened was 1928. The mud will be so thick that people won't be able to see their TV screens."
A report issued late last week by the Annenberg Political Fact Check, a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, said the increase in negative advertising is a result of a spike in advertising by party committees. Since Labor Day, 91% of the ads from the National Republican Congressional Committee for House candidates have been negative, while 81% of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee ads have been negative.
The report said that while both sides have been negative, there have been marked differences in tone, with Republicans "hitting below the belt."
'Petty and personal'
"What stood out [in the Republican ads] was a pronounced tendency to be petty and personal and sometimes careless with the facts," the report said. "The Republican ads variously accuse Democratic candidates of such things as charging an 'adult fantasy' phone call to taxpayers, of being a 'hypocrite,' of being a 'greedy trial lawyer,' of being a 'millionaire know-it-all' or failing to pay business taxes on time."
The group said the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee ads are also negative but generally attack Republicans on policy rather than personal issues.
Kathleen Hall Jamieson, dean of the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, who tracked both House and Senate races, said she has seen a clearly higher level of negative advertising. Negative ads in some races, she said, account for 80% of the total, up from 60% two years ago. And in some cases, the tone of the advertising in races dramatically changed when party committees stopped advertising and only candidate ads remained.
Battling the status quo
"The Democrats have to argue against the status quo, so they are attacking, while the Republicans are hoping to turn the negatives into nonvoters," she said.
Mr. Sabato said party consultants believe that 80% to 90% of political ads this year are either purely negative or contrasting negative.
"It plays to the popular conception," he said. "The public is cynical and doesn't believe positive ads, the lovely family, the dog and cat and a picnic. An election is based on a mood and you have to match the atmospherics. The public mood this year is that they are totally soured on politicians. One party will win but no one respects them."
A GOP campaign consultant suggested it may just appear that negative ads are on the rise, but it's mainly that the nastiness quotient within them has risen. "The negatives aren't working as well and so campaigns are turning up the volume in their ads," he said.