Every election, commentators can be relied on to predict that this will be the most negative campaign in history. We've already heard such predictions this year, and we'll surely hear more. It almost certainly won't be true, but you can also predict that when one side attacks the other, the side being attacked will respond by saying, "Our opponent is just trying to distract Americans from the real issues/his failed record/that disturbing story about him and a goat." But we should keep things in perspective. It's possible to have a lot of negative ads and still have a relatively positive campaign, believe it or not.
That's because ads are not the only thing a campaign does. They're interesting to reporters for a number of reasons, including the fact that they synthesize the campaign's message neatly down to 30 or 60 seconds, and they contain pretty moving pictures. That makes them particularly compelling to television reporters and those who write for the web, because those reporters can add visual pizzazz to their stories by playing or embedding the ad. Television ads are the most expensive part of the campaign, it's true. But in terms of the aggregate effort and time the campaign spends, they're not as central as we sometimes make them out to be. Though both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney will be spending millions on TV ads, they'll also be marshaling armies of volunteers, and desperately trying to spin press coverage to their advantage, and making hundreds of speeches, and engaging in a series of televised debates.
Putting on his political consultant hat (the secret desire of every campaign reporter), Chris Cillizza advises Obama to go negative on Romney over the air, in a post entitled, "Why President Obama shouldn't run any more positive ads": "The best way to frame that devil you know/devil you don’t know line of attack is through a sustained campaign of negative ads in swing states," Cillizza says. "While the risk of being hoisted on his own petard is real for Obama, it’s clearly outweighed by the benefit of the damage these ads will do to Romney’s image in swing states." And why not? It isn't as though Americans are unfamiliar with Barack Obama's presidency. Nor is it the case that Obama won't spend lots and lots of time going around the country talking to voters about all the good things he's done in his first term and all the good things he plans to do in his second term. So what would be so wrong with the Obama campaign saying, "We're going to use TV advertising to tell you why Mitt Romney is a bad, bad man; if you want some affirmative reasons to vote for the president, please listen to his speeches or visit our web site." The Romney campaign could do the same thing, and it wouldn't make the campaign much more negative than it would be otherwise.