John G. Geer
Museum of the Moving Image
The Living Room Candidate
"Education," McCain, 2008
MALE NARRATOR: Education Week says Obama hasn't made a significant mark on education. That he's elusive on accountability. A staunch defender of the existing public school monopoly. Obama's one accomplishment? Legislation to teach comprehensive sex education - to kindergarteners. Learning about sex before learning to read? Barack Obama. Wrong on education. Wrong for your family.
McCAIN: I'm John McCain, and I approved this message.
There are a lot of concerns being expressed in all quarters about the harsh tone of the 2008 presidential campaign. It has been hard hitting. But has the tenor of this campaign broken new ground? Are we witnessing the most negative campaign in the TV era? Reasonable people can disagree on the answer here. My view is that 2008 is not hitting new lows. Rather, it is very much in tune with other tough campaigns. Let's look at some current and past ads. I will start with an attack ad from the current campaign to set the tone (pun intended) and then proceed to examples from 1964, 1968, 1980, 1988, 1992, and 2004.
About John G. Geer
John G. Geer is Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Vanderbilt University and the author of In Defense of Negativity: Attack Ads in Presidential Campaigns.
Click on thumbnail to view video
A pretty tough ad which makes a claim that seems more than out of bounds. Does Obama really support sex education for six-year-olds? Let's set the historical context. A good way to start is by looking at the "ice cream cone" ad from 1964.
This ad makes the claims in "Education" look mild. Suggesting that Barry Goldwater's presidency could kill this innocent child goes a number of steps further than the sex education claim.
McCain wants to paint Obama as a risk by asking if he is ready to lead. The argument in this Humphrey spot is that Nixon's presidency could lead to nuclear war and, as a result, there is "no alternative." I would say this ad pushed beyond the tone of the Celebrity ad.
This ad is a version of "guilt by association," raising doubts about McCain.
We see Jimmy Carter's campaign using a different tactic to paint Reagan as a risky alternative. This ad is quite hard hitting. The general theme can be seen in a number of ads this year. Is the tone really harsher this year?
This ad uses McCain's negative ads in the campaign as a wedge against him. It is an attack on the attacks.
This ad has much in common with "This Year." Michael Dukakis was, by the way, the first presidential candidate to run a negative ad about his opponent's negative ads. It has become a staple of political campaigns. Obama's ad reinforces again that the tone of this presidential campaign is similar to those of the recent past.
This spot is a classic personal attack. It throws a few elbows.
Here is a spot that paints a very grim picture of Arkansas, raising numerous doubts about Clinton's ability to be president. The tone here is very harsh and something that may help us appreciate 2008.
International threat is an important issue. Both Obama and McCain have talked about the risks of choosing their opponents. In a post-9/11 world, that is hardly a surprise. We need to know who can handle threats from abroad. President Bush used such issues to his advantage in this tough spot questioning whether Senator Kerry was really ready to be president.
After having seen all these ads, you may view some as more negative than others. It is very much a matter of personal taste. But when you look at all of these together, it is hard to claim that 2008 is setting new lows. It looks to me like the same wine in new bottles.