Most candidates ignore calls for clean ads

Chris Vetter

The ad blares, “One thing you can be sure of, Dennis Newinski supports Newt Gingrich’s extreme agenda. And if he’s for Gingrich, he sure isn’t for you.”
This is the end of a Bruce Vento -for-Congress radio ad, played almost every other hour on KSTP-AM (1500) talk radio. No issues are discussed or debated in the ad.
The ads in this year’s election cycle have taken on a negative tone, with challengers and incumbents alike tossing mud at one another. The ads are viewed as negative because they put down their opponent, rather than discussing issues or explaining the candidates own point of view.
Republican Newinski’s ads attacking Vento, a Democrat, display the same negativism found in ads from both parties. The ad pretends to be a quick news segment, but it clearly is two voices giving negative information on Vento. The ad says Vento is an out-of-touch incumbent who is “desperate to hold onto power.”
Ads for the Minnesota Senate race this fall have also been negative. A recent ad by People for Rudy Boschwitz depicts the fictional Liberal Hall of Fame inducting Sen. Paul Wellstone as its newest member in 1967. The ad describes Wellstone as being “decades out of touch,” and shows a smoky room with a few hippies unenthusiastically applauding Wellstone. The ad gives no facts and makes no allusions to Wellstone’s position on issues.
Another Boschwitz ad shows a caricature of a fat and frumpy Wellstone waving a placard that reads “liberal.” While this ad does list past votes by Wellstone opposing welfare reform and voting for 48 tax increases over his time in office, it too rests on the theme of portraying Wellstone as “embarrassingly liberal.”
The negative ads come despite a national and local call for cleaner campaigns. A nonpartisan Citizens Campaign Advertising Code, created earlier this year, calls for politicians to avoid negative ads and for them to appear in at least 50 percent of each of their ads.
Dave Sharp, the executive director of the Citizens Campaign Advertising Code, said at least one person in 93 percent of the local, state and national races in Minnesota this year has signed an ethical campaign code.
Sharp said phrases such as “embarrassingly liberal” and “extreme Gingrich agenda” are not proper under the voluntary code.
“Clearly (these phrases) are demagoguery, and clearly (they are) not getting to the issues,” Sharp said.
Most of the candidates who have signed the voluntary code are in smaller races. Wellstone, Boschwitz, Newinski and Vento have not signed the pact.
“I haven’t seen it,” Vento said of the code. “I normally don’t sign those.”
But Vento said he is involved in creating his ads, and stands by all of them.
Only 5th Congressional District candidate Jack Uldrich has signed the code. However, Uldrich has not raised a great deal of money, and has yet to air a radio or television ad.
The Minnesota Compact, a similar pact to the advertising code, has also not been signed by these major candidates.
The Boschwitz ads have been mean and uninformative, Sharp said.
“The caricature is a demeaning tactic,” Sharp said. “The Liberal Hall of Fame is completely issueless. It’s not even funny. There is no point but to link Wellstone to liberals.”
Sharp said the public is growing increasingly critical of the negative ads. “Sixty percent of the people in Minnesota said that ads are too negative,” Sharp said. A KARE 11/St. Paul Pioneer Press poll released Wednesday showed 56 percent of Minnesotans think campaigns are too negative.
Sharp said an example of a quality campaign ad shows Wellstone discussing his vote on welfare reform. Wellstone looks directly in the camera and says, while he realizes his vote may cost him the election, he did what he believes is right for Minnesota.
“This is the type of ad we are looking for,” Sharp said.
Sharp said he is not bothered by the choice of words in the Vento ads, but said Vento should say them rather than an unknown radio voice.
Along with the fact that many ads have been negative, there is also a question of where the money to pay for them comes from.
Most of the negative ads have been paid for with out-of-state funds, said political analyst Dean Alger, who has written a book on negative campaigns.
“The National Republican Committee has spent a million dollars intended to beat down Wellstone,” Alger said.
Interest groups also contribute to funding for ads. The AFL-CIO has spent $850 million dollars in Democratic campaigns across the country, attempting to link Republicans to Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, a prominent conservative with low public approval ratings according to opinion polls.
Alger said the ads are cut in a way to make it appear that Gingrich is in favor of eliminating Medicare. These ads are effective, but not necessarily accurate, Alger said.
Not everyone considers the negative ads to be a bad thing, however. William Babcock, the director of the Silha Center for the study of media ethics and law, said the ads do provide an important message about the candidates.
“In general I think negative ads in large part have received a bad knock,” Babcock said. “A negative ad can show the weakness of the candidate. If a candidate is weak in an area, is it wrong to point it out?”
Babcock said that if he were Boschwitz, he too would mention Wellstone’s “liberal” voting record.
“To avoid those issues is to stick your head in the political sand,” Babcock said.
Most University students have seen at least one ad and no one seems too pleased with what they have watched.
“The ads didn’t tell me anything,” said College of Liberal Arts junior John Hawkins. “They are a joke. All the ads have been extremely vague.”