The Associated Press was reporting with more than a week to go until Election Day that the major parties had spent nearly $160 million in ads attacking congressional candidates, compared to $17 million spent on ads with a positive message.
As AP reported, that's nearly $10 of nasty for every dollar of nice.
Anyone who has been watching the ads in state races in Wisconsin knows that the ratio might very well be worse here.
The professional political consultants who drive the strategic decisionmaking – and the ad buys – privately admit that campaigns are getting a diminishing return on each ad because viewers are increasingly tuning out the unrelentingly trashy messages. The campaigns' response to less bang for each buck? Raise even more money and buy even more ads.
The mantra of the political pros is that negative advertising is so prevalent because it is so effective. Yeah, sure they work. They make people a helluva lot more negative about politics and politicians. They make people hold their noses and choose between the lesser of evils.
If airlines advertised the way politicians do, would anyone in America fly again?
The candidates and their handlers can't seem to see beyond Election Day. They see negative ads as their ticket to office, but then when they get there they must realize that the public sees them as something between used car salesmen and child molesters. The way they are attaining power cripples them, undermining the very thing their legitimacy as elected officials depends on. Voter trust.
Going negative may be getting them elected, but it's also making it next to impossible for them to govern. I think the bosses at the Capitol are smart enough to see that. Which brings me to the real reason they can't get their campaigns out of the gutter. It's not that negative ads are so effective. It's that they're easy. It's far easier to tear something down than to build it in the first place. And it's far easier to trash an opponent than to inspire people.
Today's ads are a reflection of the poverty that grips our democracy. The greatest tragedy of our times is the absence of political leaders with the capacity to inspire.