In politics, the year of the warm and fuzzy ad
TV spots have been touting candidates' bios, integrity, and leadership skills. But they may get edgier as race moves on.
Despite the subzero temperatures and steady snow as voters go the polls Tuesday in New Hampshire, it's been an unusually warm and gentle campaign season, especially on television.
But those temperate politics are not expected to last. New Hampshire's cozy house parties and intimate town-hall meetings will be replaced by hurried tarmac touchdowns and big impersonal rallies. Gone, too, will be the kind of up-close-and-personal local media coverage that gives New Hampshire voters a chance to assess each contender thoroughly, if they hadn't already met him in person.
And with that goes the political intimacy that this year, in particular, has discouraged negativity in Iowa and New Hampshire.
No matter what happens at the ballot box Tuesday, at least six of the seven candidates are expected to compete next Tuesday in the seven contests from South Carolina to Missouri to New Mexico.
Voters in these primaries face an entirely different set of calculations. They'll be much more dependent on the national media to get a sense of the field. And so TV advertising will be far more critical, in both senses of the word. "On Wednesday, the gloves come off," says Tobe Berkovitz, a political analyst at Boston University. "The less engaged and the less informed the voters are, in general, the better negative advertising works, because that's their only frame of reference."
But here in New Hampshire, voters are getting a clear sense of what each candidate would at least like them to think. Thanks to what can be called the Iowa wind-chill effect, which dampened campaigns' taste for the negative, voters have been treated to a steady diet of mostly uplifting ads touting leadership, integrity, honesty, and courage.
John Kerry promises he'll "take the fight to George Bush every day." Howard Dean "stands up for what's right, when it's not popular ... the test of a true leader." Wesley Clark touts his ability to "get things done by putting principle above politics."
Whatever jabs exist are subtle, such as Dr. Dean's point that he spoke out against the Iraq war and the president's economic plan while "other Democrats" were silent.
There's been one clear beneficiary of this kinder and gentler tone: Senator Kerry, the front-runner who's escaped the beatings usually inflicted on whoever is in the No. 1 spot. "He's also in the envious position of being in a multicandidate field," says Professor Berkovitz, "which means if a candidate attacks Kerry and brings his poll numbers down a little bit, it doesn't necessarily mean the attacker's numbers are going to go up."
In Iowa, some of those attackers even went down. But don't think that means a permanent end to the infamous attack ad. Voters almost always say they don't like them, but they watch them. In fact, negative ads have proved to be very effective in getting out information that people remember, for good or bad. "If I told you candidate X was a nice guy and good with his family, you might remember it for 10 seconds," says political analyst Dan Payne. "But if I told you he had a mistress in a nearby town, you'd remember it, probably believe it, and even traffic it a bit."
So there's a delicate line to walk. Because of the risk of offending some voters, the attack ads are sometimes reserved for when candidates are feeling desperate. After Tuesday, that could be case.
Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut has been floundering in the single digits. Unless a surge of independent voters gives him a surprise boost, it's expected that he'll leave the race Wednesday. If Lieberman does decide to stay in, strategists contend that he'll have to go negative.
"If he stays in, he'll have to go to some state, plant the flag, and attack whoever is in his way," says Mr. Payne.
The same is true for retired Gen. Wesley Clark, whose once commanding second place in the polls here has disappeared. Now polls have him slipping into the teens.
Indeed, as Berkovitz says, expect the behind-the-scenes "venom dealers" to come out Wednesday. They'll try to paint unpleasant pictures of the opposition, while on the surface at least, the candidates try to stay above the fray.