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Lloyd Omdahl, Published October 14 2012

Omdahl: Negative ads feed voters

"I’ve never seen more irresponsible personal attacks, mean-spirited slander, and flat-out dishonest attack ads, and I don’t expect that tone to change before the election.”

That’s how Rick Warren, author of best-selling “The Purpose Driven Life,” put it when he canceled his proposed civil forum featuring President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.

He said that he believed the campaign had become so uncivil that a two-hour polite exchange would be hypocritical. That about sums up the feeling of most citizens as the campaign draws to a close.

In their book “Going Negative,” Stephen Ansolabehere and Shanto Iyengar point out that the closer the contest, the more negative the rhetoric. This certainly is the case in the presidential contest and the U.S. Senate race between Rick Berg and Heidi Heitkamp.

Before we lay all of the blame on the candidates, however, we need to acknowledge the truth about negative campaigning: It works. And it works because too many voters know too little about the records of candidates to sort out fiction from fact.

Being ignorant about the issues and the candidates, they are likely to believe anything they see and hear. The so-called “independent’ voters are the most gullible of all.

We usually think of independent voters as those intelligent folks who weigh the issues and withhold judgment until the last campaign salvo is fired, and then cast the most learned ballots. Not so!

Generally, independent voters are folks who pay little attention to public affairs and issues. Many of them have contempt for the political system, claiming that the system is crooked and so are the officeholders.

Negative campaigning is in harmony with independent voters because it fits their negative attitude about the political system.

In North Dakota nice, we haven’t seen many mean-spirited campaigns in the past, even in close contests. However, the rules have changed during the past few years.

Most of the super-negative ads running on behalf of Rick Berg and Heidi Heitkamp are not products of their campaigns. We now have these so-called “independent” ads, concocted and financed without the approval of the candidates, sponsored by out-of-state organizations and corporations now permitted to pour big bucks into politics.

There is nothing North Dakota nice about them. They want to win so they can get a senator who will vote their way on their issues and give them a bigger piece of the pie than they are entitled to.

According to “Going Negative,” organized interests sponsor meaner ads than the candidate organizations themselves. We can see that in the ads being run in the Berg-Heitkamp race.

Under the current rules, the candidates are responsible for only those ads for which they have given their approval. So we can’t blame the candidates for most of the mean-spirited commercials.

Some folks think that candidates should win by being positive. That idea doesn’t work. Studies show that voters believe attack ads when the victim doesn’t counterattack. “It must be true,” is the conclusion.

While determining the outcome of elections, negative campaigns have an adverse impact on the electorate. In the first place, the vicious charges and countercharges polarize the electorate. They convince us that the opposition party is even worse than we thought.

Negative campaigns also confirm the convictions of the cynics that the political system is corrupt and tends to discourage people from participating. We will see if this claim is true when the votes in the U.S. Senate race are counted.

So before we condemn negative advertising, we need to remember that it’s our ignorance that makes it effective.


Omdahl is a former North Dakota lieutenant governor and a retired University of North Dakota political science teacher. Email ndmatters@q.com