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It is not easy to be positive about this negative presidential campaign. The onslaught of attack ads continues and so do the complaints by political observers of all stripes. But it's time to move beyond this negativity about negativity. Negative ads actually play a vital role in our political process. Complaints rest mostly on speculation, not fact, so we have developed a new way to gather real data to assess the public's reaction to advertising negativity.
To understand why attack ads are vital to the process, it helps to jettison the term "negative." Think instead about "contrast," and we begin to see value. Elections ask voters to choose. But an informed choice requires information about the strengths and weaknesses of candidates. The public understands this requirement. According to data collected by YouGov, 71 percent of Americans found ads that show "the candidates' differences on issues" as "very" or "somewhat" helpful. For ads that show "the inconsistencies in a candidate's positions on issues," 56 percent of the public found such claims to be "very" or "somewhat" helpful.
Doubters counter that contrasts are misleading and inaccurate. But this reaction ignores the realities of today's campaigns. Attack ads, for starters, are checked and rechecked by the teams that produce them to make sure the claims are defensible. To do otherwise risks an ad that backfires, doing more harm than good. And, the need for evidence makes these "contrast" ads more meaty. For those who doubt such claims, remember the content of a typical positive ad. We learn the candidate favors a robust economy, educated children and a strong defense. Yawn, not much meat on those bones.
Even so, should we still not worry that negativity will turn off the public? Fortunately, we no longer need to guess when answering that question. Through Internet-based surveys, we can ask the public to evaluate ads. Vanderbilt University, in partnership with YouGov, has launched the Ad Rating Project that allows the public to tell us whether specific ads make them angry, whether they think they are unfair, memorable, untruthful and negative. We also ask the public whether they intend to vote and who they will support. In short, we obtain a wealth of scientific data that allows us to democratize our assessment of political ads.
What have we learned so far? That the public is not all that bothered by "contrast" ads. About 40 percent of the public finds them to be unfair. But, 26 percent of the public thinks positive ads are also unfair! The public thinks "contrast" ads are just as untruthful as purely positive ads -- about 40 percent in each case. As expected, the ratings are wildly partisan. Republicans think attacks on Obama are fair. Whereas, they believe that attacks on Romney are unfair. And, vice versa.
We also find that these ads only affect swing voters. Our data show that Obama's harsh attack ads have moved the dials for independent voters. By contrast, most of Romney's ads have not changed the minds of independents.
It is important to monitor this onslaught of attack ads. We offer a new, scientific way to do so. Our early data document that contrasting information plays an important and underappreciated role in the democratic process. We need, in other words, to guard against being too negative about negativity. Err, we mean "contrast."
Fred Davis has served as the media strategist for many candidates, including the presidential campaigns of George W. Bush and John McCain. He wrote this for Politico with the aid of John Geer, the Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Professor of Political Science at Vanderbilt University.