Campaign Ads Turn Ugly

Political advertising became significantly more negative this fall as the Sept. 11 anniversary passed and the election grew nearer, says a researcher monitoring the ads.

"We're now more than 13 months after Sept. 11,'' said Ken Goldstein, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "Life has gone back to normal in most ways and life has gone back to normal in politics. Politics does what works.''

Less than one ad in five has been positive in the Senate campaign in New Jersey, the study indicated. In that race, Republican Douglas Forrester spent much of the year criticizing the ethics of Sen. Robert Torricelli, before Torricelli dropped out and former Sen. Frank Lautenberg took up the race for the Democrats.

Senate races in Colorado, with one-third positive ads, and Iowa, with two-fifths positive, were also among the most negative campaigns in the country, the study found. The fierce Senate battle in South Dakota was not measured because the state has smaller media markets not included in the data from the 100 largest markets.

Goldstein, the political scientist directing the study for the Wisconsin Advertising Project, said, "Advertising is focused on a few very competitive races. Very competitive races draw negative advertising.''

In his study, he considers negative advertising to be ads that talk about the opposing candidates and their records. The Wisconsin Advertising Project is funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts and uses data from the Campaign Media Analysis Group.

"Having said that, there is nothing wrong with negative advertising,'' Goldstein said, differentiating such ads from those that distort someone's record or are inaccurate. He said negative ads often include supporting material to back their claims.

The ads run by congressional candidates are twice as positive as those run by the political parties or interest groups, a reflection of the criticism that often follows negative ads.

"Political advertising generally has been more positive in 2002 than in 2000,'' Goldstein said, adding that after the Sept. 11 anniversary "it's back to politics as usual.''