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The Mean Season: Negativity in Election 2012

Sunday - 10/21/2012, 2:12pm  ET

AP National Writer

(AP) - In the America viewed through the lens of a presidential campaign commercial, coal miners hear that their jobs are "in danger," voters are warned that "China is stealing American ideas," and the middle class, it's been said time and again, is "falling further behind." President Barack Obama has failed to "stop cheaters" while Republican challenger Mitt Romney simply won't "level with us about his tax plan" _ or, for that matter, his own taxes. And, let us not forget: Big Bird may well be an endangered species.

Need a shower to cleanse away the residue of negativity coating Election 2012? You're not alone.

This campaign season is awash in the stuff _ meaning so, too, is the commonwealth. Blame technology for the endless candidate-bashing e-mails, or YouTube for at-your-fingertips access to advertisements typically seen in only a handful of states, or the 24/7 media environment. Blame, even, the Supreme Court for its 2010 decision that loosened campaign finance restrictions, giving rise to the super PACs responsible for so many of the contentious ads of today.

And blame the campaigns themselves, whose strategists recognize "going negative" as an approach that, while distasteful to voters, can and does work.

"The fact of the matter is negative ads ... are more effective than positive ads. They're more likely to be remembered. They're more likely to get attention through the news media and therefore get repetition," says Shanto Iyengar, who directs the Political Communication Lab at Stanford University and co-authored the book, "Going Negative," a study of the effects of negative advertising on the electorate.

Voters, too, must accept some blame for the unpleasantness. After all, what exchanges are your friends _ or you _ engaging in on Facebook and Internet comment boards these days? We Americans like to think of ourselves as positive, productive, forward-thinking and looking. And yet we are not only susceptible to this ugliness, we oftentimes help to spread it.

Negativity, says Iyengar, gets voters' "juices flowing. You've heard Republicans saying, `I wish Romney would do more of this,' because it tends to energize them. That's what they want. They want some red meat out there. In the final analysis everyone complains, but that doesn't mean that they don't listen."

Nor does it mean that this thing that can feel so alienating isn't, in some ways, actually good for a democracy. Just ask John Geer, a political scientist at Vanderbilt University whose own book on negative campaigning offers a defense of the tactic.

"I have a positive campaign for negative campaigning," he likes to quip, and it goes something like this:

_ Negative advertisements and statements tend to be more substantive than positive ones.

_ Negative advertisements and statements help to highlight differences between candidates.

_ Negative advertisements and statements can help engage the public because, well, conflict can do that.

"A positive ad tells you that the candidate favors educated children, more jobs and a clean environment. Wow," says Geer, with more than a hint of sarcasm, "we've learned that somebody favors more jobs and a stronger economy.

"If you ask the American public: Do you want to know about whether the other side will raise taxes or whether a candidate flip-flops or whether a candidate has enough experience _ all the stuff that makes up most negative ads _ they say, `Yeah. We want to know that information.' But if you say: Do you want more negative ads? They say no."

Emmett Buell, another expert in all-things-antagonistic in politics, agrees that the tit-for-tat tactics can "contribute invaluably to the American electorate process." He notes: "Once in a while we get candidates who are exaggerators. They need to be found out. If candidates were restricted from criticizing each other ... there'd be no challenge to that."

In the sheer quantity of negative advertising and amount of dollars being spent, this year may mark the birth of an unprecedented era of negative campaigning, according to political scientists and campaign watchers. Contributing to the atmosphere is our extended campaign cycle of today, in which the barbs start flying long before the post-convention, fall campaign.

The standard formula of old _ in which a candidate sought to first introduce himself to voters with positive messages before taking on, or down, his opponent _ has also become a thing of the past. Says Iyengar: "Today you go negative from Day 1."

But are modern-day presidential contests _ and, in particular, this super PAC-dominated race of 2012 _ actually nastier? Not necessarily.

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