The percentage of negative political TV ads has increased sharply in the run up to the 2012 election. Ronald Reagan — revered by the Republican candidates — didn't air a single negative advertisement in his 1980 campaign for the presidency. George W. Bush's campaign didn't air any negative ads in 2000 either, nor did Democratic candidate Al Gore. Audie Cornish talks with John Geer, who tracks political advertising out of Vanderbilt University, about why the landscape has changed so drastically.
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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
This year, Republican presidential candidates abandoned Ronald Reagan's so-called 11th commandment. That's the idea that while campaigning, thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republicans. Despite some initial lip service to the axiom, the candidates and their surrogates have waged a remarkably negative war of words.
(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: What kind of man would mislead, distort, and deceive just to win an election? This man would, Mitt Romney.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: While Nevada families lost everything in the housing crisis, Newt Gingrich cashed in.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Romney pocketed a half a million dollars. The cost to taxpayers, 40 million.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Gingrich was paid over $1.6 million by the scandal-ridden agency that helped create the crisis.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: Get the facts at MittsBloodMoney.com.
CORNISH: Here to give us a sense of just how bad it is this year is John Geer. He teaches political science at Vanderbilt University, and he's the author of "In Defense of Negativity: Attack Ads in Presidential Campaigns." Welcome, John.
JOHN GEER: Thank you for having me.
CORNISH: So how negative has it been this year and what's the standard of our negative ad?
GEER: Well, it's been really negative this year by any kind of standard. I mean, for example, since Iowa, 75 percent of Gingrich's ads have been negative, Romney's ads about the same. The Restore Our Future PAC, which is the Romney PAC, almost all the ads have been negative. And so, this stands in stark contrast to previous elections.
So, for example, in 1980, only 2 percent of the ads were negative or even in 2000 on the Republican side, just about 3 percent. This is unprecedented amounts of attacks unfolding and we certainly saw it big time in Florida.
CORNISH: So, it's not all in our heads then, right?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GEER: No, it's real and it's out there. And I think it's only the beginning. I suspect that we're going to see more and more attacks not just within the Republican Party, but then once the nominee is chosen, that nominee, which I assume at this point will be Romney, Romney and Obama will go at it big time.
CORNISH: So, what's different this year?
GEER: Well, I think there's two things that are different. One is that you do have superPACs, and the superPACs are spending a lot of money and they're doing a lot of negative advertising. The second thing that's going on is the Republican Party has a battle for its heart and soul, so to speak. There's a battle between purists and pragmatists. And this is leading to even more harsh exchanges, which have happened over the, you know, last 30, 40 years, but never like this. And so the combination is very powerful.
CORNISH: So, 2012, you mentioned superPACs. What have they done to change the landscape?
GEER: Well, they have allowed a venue for more and more attacks because these PACs aren't accountable. That is that they're not facing the ballot box. Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, they are, so they tend to be a little less negative in their own candidate ads. But then the superPACs can have at it. And so, they can push the limits in ways that are troubling for the process.
For instance, if you make a claim that's completely unsubstantiated, it's introducing an issue that may not be genuine, that may not be real. I mean, presidential politics is rough-and-tumble, but we're entering in a new era with this kind of money that could become even more rough-and-tumble in ways that force candidates to respond to things that really aren't even genuine.
CORNISH: Now, some political watchers have said that these ads will come back and haunt the candidates in the general election. But judging from past campaigns, how much of a problem is that really? And is it something that can be overcome?
GEER: Well, I think that there is a certain benefit to having all these attacks aired now. It gets candidates toughened up and prepared for the general election. I mean, certainly, Barack Obama benefited from having a very tough primary battle against Hillary Clinton.
Now, whether Newt Gingrich goes further and actually kind of burns down the house and, in so doing, takes Romney down with him, that's possible. Because the nature of the advertising in 2008 was very implicit in its attacks, between Obama and Clinton, and there's nothing implicit about 2012.
CORNISH: Implicit meaning they just sort of hinted that something might be inappropriate or...
GEER: Yeah. So, for example, Hillary Clinton might have an ad that would start out: It takes more than talk to run this country. Well, that was her way of jabbing, so to speak, at Barack Obama being about talk and not being about experience. And so, there was those kinds of verbal duelings going on. But I'm not sure that the public picked that up. And certainly it was a jab, but it was a pretty soft one compared to, you know, you're a liar and you're dishonest.
CORNISH: I mentioned Ronald Reagan at the start of this. Did he really always follow that edict as a candidate himself?
GEER: Actually, he did. I've looked at the ads that are available through the Julian P. Kanter Archive, and Ronald Reagan did not air a single negative ad in 1980.
CORNISH: John Geer, he's head of the Political Science Department at Vanderbilt University. John, thanks so much.
GEER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.