This Column Is Crooked, Sleazy & Sick

Blonde woman in ad attacking Harold Ford Jr. CBS

This commentary was written by CBSNews.com's Dick Meyer.

How big will the Democratic wave be?

Professional, non-partisan prognosticators see plenty of signs of a Democratic tidal wave in the House races. But their predictions are somewhat cautious, generally in the range of a Democratic pickup of 25-35 seats.

To put that number in perspective: the Republicans gained 52 seats in the 1994 midterm elections and the Democrats picked up 49 in 1974.

So if the forecast says tsunami, why are the forecasters' numbers relatively small and the predictions cautious?

Part of the answer is that with each election, incumbents become wilier at protecting themselves, especially through the gerrymandering of safe districts exempt from partisan competition.

But another important dynamic is that the political water table has been drained so low by the high volume of parasitic slime in campaigns and in government that it's simply harder for those big waves to form.

"We have become so skilled at making people unpopular that it's hard for anyone to get very involved or invested with candidates," says Harrison Hickman, a Democratic pollster. The main vehicle for making candidates unattractive, of course, is the negative television commercial.

Hickman has the numbers to back up the slow demise of positive feelings about candidates. He tabulated the final, pre-election favorability ratings in all the statewide races he has worked on since 1986, in non-presidential years.

Final Pre-election Favorability Ratings
Midterm Elections
Senate and Governors, 1986-2002


Favorable Ratings

YearWinnerLoser
198656.235.4
199054.431.4
199454.342.3
199851.241.3
200250.143.0



Unfavorable Ratings

YearWinnerLoser
198625.631.0
199025.133.1
199431.035.3
199828.035.3
200234.137.9



Net Favorable

YearWinnerLoser
198630.64.4
199029.3-1.8
199423.37.0
199823.26.0
200216.05.1


In one election after another, candidates – both winners and losers — have gone into Election Day with steadily less support and popularity. No wonder the Founding Fathers didn't want America to have political parties.

Now, an important question: how culpable are negative ads in generating this growing distaste for politics and candidates? Academics are actually divided; some say negative ads foster apathy and disgust, others have found they get voters motivated (negatively) and convey important political information to an otherwise tuned out electorate.

Candidates and consultants aren't in such a pickle. They have no doubt that negative ads work and they use them promiscuously, irresponsibly and viciously.

In this election, official party committees have spent $160 million on negative ads and just $17 million on conventional, positive ads. Negative wins by a 10 to 1 margin.

Don't be misled; there will be much more than $160 million spent assassinating characters this year; that's just the party money and doesn't include the cash laid out by the candidates themselves and various independent groups.

I have probably screened 60 negative ads this year and it's clear to me that this year's crop is the most scurrilous ever. The race-baiting ad run against Harold Ford in Tennessee is the most infamous example, but it is no sleazier than a dozen others I have seen.

One skuzzy ad accuses Democratic House candidate Michael Arcuri in New York of using taxpayer dollars to call a phone sex line. It turns out someone misdialed the state Division of Criminal Justice, which has an almost identical number. Ads run against Bob Casey in Pennsylvania misleadingly use actors to portray people who are supposedly Casey's cronies.

It seems there's very little that desperate candidates can't get away with anymore. And I mean that: this year's ads are simply full of lies and creepy insinuations. A good place to get a feel for the sleaze out there is at factcheck.org, a non-partisan group that monitors political ads for - get this - accuracy. By the way, factcheck.org found that while both parties have behaved poorly, the Republicans have been more outrageous. No surprise there, since they're the ones who are running behind.

Can you imagine blatantly and publicly lying about a rival at work, a nasty Little League coach, a teacher in your kid's school or someone running against you for the school board? Think about what it takes to do something like that. It takes a person who doesn't feel shame or embarrassment.

When it comes to running for high office, there's no shortage of such individuals. So no matter how big the popular wave is that's about to hit Congress, it will be propelled, understandably, more by a desire to wash out the old than a desire to usher in the new.



Dick Meyer is the editorial director of CBSNews.com, based in Washington.

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By Dick Meyer
  • Bootie Cosgrove-Mather

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