Prof says negative ads keep truth in campaigns, even when the truth hurts

John Geer predicted the nation’s political divide will produce a year rich in negative ads.

Ed Swaray

Negative political ads, while often controversial, tend to be more accurate than positive ads, Vanderbilt University professor John Geer argued at a lecture Thursday at the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs building.

In front of more than 50 students and faculty, Geer, a political science professor, said negative campaigning and attack ads are good for democracy.

Geer said even though negative ads might turn some people off, more people might vote because of them.

For example, he attributed the second-place finish of Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., in Monday’s Iowa caucus to a huge turnout of people voting against candidates running negative ad campaigns.

He predicted November’s elections will contain more negative ads than any since 1960 because of increasing polarization between the Democratic and Republican parties.

In addition, negative political ads also raise substantive issues in election campaigns, said Geer, author of the upcoming book “Attacking Democracy: A Defense of Negativity in Presidential Campaigns, 1960-2000.”

University political science professor Joanne Miller agreed, adding that negative ads help voters learn what candidates stand for based on their true records in office.

Graduate student Steve Peterson, who attended the lecture, said negative ads are good only as long as candidates do not unleash personal attacks on their opponents.

“If a negative political ad pulls out someone’s record, that’s fine,” he said. “But if their ad says the person is bad because of his political decision, that’s wrong.”

Geer said opposition researchers usually verify their negative ad claims before they are released. Positive political ads do not go through such thorough verification, Miller said.

Negative ads based on falsehoods are harmful to democracy, Miller said. Instead, they should be analyzed for the truth, a job she assigns to the media.

She added that positive ads should also truthfully address substantive issues.

“When positive ads make people more enthusiastic and hopeful, their choices are then based on superficial things like party affiliation,” she said. “This is not good for democracy.”