NEW YORK Politics is a dirty game. According to political consultants speaking at an Advertising Week session, the tactics in this election are getting dirtier, with both presidential campaigns relying on mud-slinging ads that have no strategic underpinnings and cross the line between fact and fiction.
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Seventy-seven percent of Obama's ads the week after the Republican Convention were negative, compared to McCain's 56 percent, according to a recent study by the University of Wisconsin, cited the moderator, USA Today Washington bureau chief Susan Page, at a Pulse of America discussion.
And the attack ads are damaging both candidates in the eyes of the public.
"Both of these campaigns have diminished whatever their message might be," said Republic consultant and strategist Ed Rollins, who was political director for Ronald Reagan in 1984, and this year served as campaign manager for Mike Huckabee.
Reviewing McCain's controversial commercial telling voters that Barack Obama supported sex education for kindergarten kids, the panelists agreed that the ad was a misstep.
"Obama is being pretty negative in some of his ads, but the overall impression is that McCain is playing fast and loose with the truth," said Democratic consultant and strategist Bob Shrum, who worked on the failed presidential bids of Al Gore and John Kerry. "The biggest effect of the McCain advertising right now has been sullying the McCain brand. And as anyone in this room knows, if your ad is hurting your brand, it doesn't matter what else you are getting out of it."
Despite challenges from the press, the McCain campaign has continued to take a sensational approach in its ads, Rollins said. "It has damaged McCain. You can say negative things about your opponents as long as they are truthful, but it's a fine line."
Obama's ads have also been negative, but such efforts -- like the spot depicting McCain as out of step and computer illiterate -- were driven by strategy, said Shrum, while McCain relies on "tactics and misdirection. Whatever has occurred to them at a given moment becomes an instant ad."
Campaigns used to try to paint a picture of a candidate over time, noted Rollins. "Ten, 20 years ago, you used to try to tell stories like any other ad campaign. The problem today is that everything is a spot," he said. "It's almost like Obama is a new car and all we have to do is put a bunch of pings in it and at the end of the day the old car is the solid car. I don't think there is a consistency."
One of the strongest ads in the campaign so far, both consultants agreed, is a straightforward two-minute salvo in which Obama talks directly into the camera and explains some of his proposals for economic recovery.
"I would run it everywhere," said Rollins.
"It's the best ad of the campaign so far," added Shrum.
McCain's ad attacking Obama's position on sex education was cited as the worst.