When Negative Ads Backfire
Lessons from the 2006 campaign
By Bluey Posted in 2006 | Featured Stories — Comments (4) / Email this page » / Leave a comment »
Last September 27, in the heat of campaign season, I got a call from a staffer at the National Republican Congressional Committee offering me a bundle of information about Mike Arcuri, the Democrat running in New York's 24th District. The aide, who shall remain unidentified, told me it was a bombshell I wouldn't be able to resist.
As I looked over the 44 pages that were sent to me, including a detailed summary, I was very apprehensive to do anything. I took the documents home and studied them over the weekend, finally reaching the conclusion that at the very least, I could write a story about a pattern of questionable expenses Arcuri billed to taxpayers. The gold nugget was obviously the fact that Arcuri's hotel bill included a call to a phone-sex line. Even though it was for only $1.25, I saw it as part of larger story about a politician whose expenses increased nearly 7,000% over a eight-year period. Before I wrote the story, I asked Arcuri's campaign to comment. His spokeswoman ignored my calls.
Read the rest of the story ...
The story ran in the wake of the Mark Foley scandal, making national news on Sean Hannity's radio program. Then, 17 days later, the NRCC used part of my story in what turned out to be one of the most sensational ads in the 2006 campaign. Instead of portraying the news as I tried to do in my story -- as a pattern of Arcuri's reckless spending -- the NRCC ran an ad with audio of a racy phone-sex operator. Arcuri's opponent, Republican Ray Meier, denounced the ad and wanted it pulled off the air. His campaign manager, John Konkus, later told me that the campaign was unable to do anything about the ad because campaign-finance law restricts contact between candidates and party committees.
Rick Klein recounts the incident for the Boston Globe in an article about the troubling behavior of Republican Party committees in the 2006 campaign. It reminded me of the frustration I felt after seeing how a story that was supposed to sink Arcuri backfired on his conservative opponent.
Unfortunately, the Arcuri ad was just one of many negative ads the Republican Party relied on in 2006. Even more prominent than the Arcuri ad was one that became known as the "Playboy ad" attacking Senate candidate Harold Ford of Tennessee. In this case, Republican Bob Corker managed to win the contest. However, the ad nearly cost him the race.
Let's go back to October 20, the day of Ford's infamous "Memphis Meltdown," when he verbally sparred with Corker in a parking lot. At the time, Ford had held a lead over Corker since mid-September. In the week that followed, it evaporated. Ford dropped from 46% to a low of 42%, and Corker seized control of the campaign. (Click here to see the polling graph.)
It didn't last. The reason? In the wake of Ford's meltdown, the Republican National Committee's "Playboy ad" hit the airwaves. Within a week, as the ad made national news and saturated media outlets in Tennessee, Ford had retaken in the lead.
Tom Ingram, who took over as Corker's campaign manager on October 1, told me he was dumbfounded by what had happened. After spending the month of October getting the Corker campaign pointed in the right direction, the RNC had come in and done significant damage just two weeks before the election. Corker's campaign didn't ask for the ad and didn't want it. But thanks again to campaign-finance law, Ingram was powerless to do anything.
Fortunately for Corker, Ingram managed to get things back on track and Corker edged out Ford to capture the Senate seat. These days, Ingram has a PowerPoint presentation he uses to counsel Republicans about the damage negative ads can have on campaigns -- particularly ads that come from outside political groups.
What's the lesson in all of this? I've made it a personal mission to condemn negative ads, regardless of who runs them. Given that key players from Republican Party committees now work for each of the three leading Republican presidential candidates, I'm not sure 2008 will offer much change. However, stories such as Meier's and Corker's will hopefully remind Republicans they need to return to the party of ideas rather than the party of dirty tricks.
(I'd like to use this opportunity to correct one factual error in Rick Klein's story. He writes, "Arcuri's hotel bill from a business trip included a one-minute call to an adult talk service, which cost taxpayers $1.25. Immediately thereafter, another call was placed to a number that was identical except for the area code: the number for the state Department of Criminal Justice Services." That's not true. I have a copy of the hotel bill, and the first call was placed to 1-800-457-8462 and the second call was placed to 1-800-255-2255. The latter number is for a calling card. It's a small point, but an important one.)