A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Are Candidates Swearing Off ‘Attack Ads?’ Maybe This Reform is Working.

Where are all the nasty, personal, negative TV spots? Candidates seem to be reluctant to run them — and there’s a reason. A new law requires presidential candidates to appear in their own ads and take personal responsibility for what they say.

The idea behind this new “stand by your ad” law is that anyone slinging mud will have to do it personally, and risk getting splattered by their own missiles.

And this is a reform that actually seems to be working. So far.

Stand By Your Ad

It is only a few words in the new McCain-Feingold campaign finance law, a rider first attached in the Senate by Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat. The new measure requires “an unobscured, full-screen view of the candidate” making the statement “that the candidate has approved the communication.”

This irritates political consultants who say it commandeers several precious seconds of their clients’ 30-second ads and probably won’t be very effective. “Is it going to stop candidates from going after each other? No,” says Democratic TV consultant Peter Fenn.

But look at how the new requirement has worked so far. Candidates are finding ways to weave the required wording into their ads in various ways — all positive.


Lieberman: I approve this message because leadership means doing what’s right.

Dean: I approved this ad because I think it’s time for Democrats to be Democrats again.

Kerry: I approve this message because it’s time to do what’s right for America.

Gephardt: I’m Dick Gephardt, and I approve this message because it’s time we did what’s right.

Clark: I approve this ad because deep down we are all patriots.

Edwards: I approve this message because together, you and I can change America and make it work for all of us.

Those are so positive they make your teeth hurt. And one candidate could hardly contain himself:

Kucinich: Do I approve this commercial? You bet.

Rare Negative Ads

The first ad in which one Democrat attacked another by name didn’t appear until mid-November, when Dean attacked Gephardt’s stand on Iraq. As attack ads go, it was pretty mild:

Announcer: October 2002. Dick Gephardt agrees to coauthor the Iraq war resolution, giving George Bush the authority to go to war.

A week later, with Gephardt’s support, it passes Congress.

Then last month, Dick Gephardt votes to spend $87 billion more on Iraq . Howard Dean has a different view.

Dean: I opposed the war in Iraq , and I’m against spending another $87 billion there. I’m Howard Dean, and I approve this message because our party and our country need new leadership.

Gephardt responded with an ad that pointed out Dean hadn’t always been as opposed to the $87 billion for Iraq as his ad claimed — using Dean’s own words from a Sept. 25 Democratic debate against him:

Announcer: Howard Dean’s attacking Dick Gephardt for a position Dean took himself.

Q (from 9/15 debate): Is that an up or down, yes or no, on the $87 billion per se?

Dean: On the $87 billion for Iraq ?

Q: Yes.

Dean: We have no choice, but it has to be financed by getting rid of all the president’s tax cuts.

Gephardt: I’m Dick Gephardt, and I approve this message because leadership is about making tough decisions and sticking with them.

Those ads — for which both candidates had to take full and visible responsibility — did neither of them any good. Gephardt came in fourth and Dean ran a poor third in Iowa, ending Gephardt’s political career and wounding Dean’s campaign, perhaps fatally.

Since then no ad by any of the remaining Democrats has attacked another by name. Coincidence?

Criticism of Bush

To be sure, the Democratic ads have made plenty of negative mentions of President Bush’s policies — but Democratic primary voters could hardly be expected to hold that against them.

“His tax cuts are ruining our economy” Dean’s very first ad declared. A Kerry ad said “The one person in the United States of America who deserves to be laid off is George W. Bush.” A Lieberman ad said “George Bush antagonized our allies and had no plan to win the peace.”

But beyond accusing Bush of siding with corporations, lobbyists and the wealthy, the Democratic ads so far have stayed away from attacks on his personal character and have pretty much stuck to the facts. One exception was a Gephardt ad that said “George Bush has lost more jobs than any president since Herbert Hoover,” a claim that FactCheck.org found to be misleading. But even that was more exaggeration than falsehood.

Outside Groups Attack

There have been real attack ads, but so far they have come only from outside groups, not candidates.

The conservative, anti-tax Club for Growth ran one ad in which an Iowa couple said Dean “should take his tax-hiking, government-expanding, latte-drinking, sushi-eating, Volvo-driving, New York Times-reading . . . body-piercing, Hollywood-loving, left-wing freak show back to Vermont, where it belongs.”

And a liberal, union-supported group called Americans for Jobs, Healthcare and Progressive Values also attacked Dean, using a picture of Osama bin Laden as an announcer said “We live in a dangerous world. . . . Howard Dean has no military or foreign policy experience. And Howard Dean just cannot compete with George Bush on foreign policy.”

And the Republican National Committee ran an ad saying “some are attacking the President for attacking the terrorists.” That charge, aimed at Democratic presidential candidates, was one that the RNC failed to document, as FactCheck.org pointed out.

The Future of Attack Ads?

Will the “Stand By Your Ad” law mean the end of negative, personal attacks? Of course not.

Candidates can still use targeted mail or telephone banks to slam their opponents without having to take responsibility in such a personal way, because the new requirement applies only to TV and radio ads. And as we’ve already seen, outside groups and political parties can level shrill accusations without much fear of a voter backlash, since their names don’t appear on any ballots.

And even though the Supreme Court has upheld the “stand by your ad” provision, it remains to be seen what ways clever lawyers might find for getting around it.

“Nobody thinks this is going to be a panacea,” Sen. Wyden says of the new provision. “I think this is going to be part of a longer-running effort to take out some of the negativity.”

Even the skeptical consultant Fenn foresees some restraint on negative advertising by candidates: “Will it cause them to be careful about how they do it and check their facts and cause them to think twice before doing a last-minute hit? Yes.”