If you’ve turned on the television lately, you’ve probably noticed that negative ads for next year’s Senate race have already begun airing.
We can look forward to 17 months of this. Arkansans won’t be able to turn on the television without seeing why Sen. Mark Pryor or his eventual Republican opponent shouldn’t be walking free, much less running for office.
There will be some ads actually telling us why we should vote for Pryor or his opponent, but not that many. Most will be on the attack. Why? Because negative ads work, and because there will be unlimited money to pay for them.
Vic Snyder and Bud Cummins would understand this as well as anyone. In 1996, they squared off to represent Arkansas’ 2nd Congressional District. While Snyder had already served in the state Legislature and would serve 14 years in Congress, it was Cummins’ only political race. They did have this in common: They were, and still are, nice and honorable people.
When the campaign began, Snyder was well ahead in the polls, and he remained so. He was comfortably running biographical ads that reminded voters he is a Vietnam War veteran, which meant Cummins had to change the campaign’s storyline. To do that, he ran some ads criticizing Snyder.
At first Snyder didn’t respond. However, he noticed a different vibe when he was in public. A poll taken by his campaign revealed that the race was tightening and his disapproval ratings had risen. Interestingly, the poll revealed more voters blamed him for the campaign’s negative tone, even though all his ads had been positive. Eventually, he ran negative ads, too.
When I approached the two men about this column, I wanted to focus on how being the subject of an attack ad affected them personally. Surprisingly, neither seemed very bothered by them. Sure, they didn’t like to be criticized, but it’s part of running for office, and besides, they were too busy campaigning to spend much time watching television.
"It’s the nature of the beast, and if I started having a boohoo session and go to bed and pull the covers over my head because somebody said something nasty about me, I’d be spending all my time in bed," Snyder said. Cummins said, "You just have to get really thick-skinned, and it takes some time."
There’s an old saying, "If you can’t say something nice about someone, don’t say anything at all." I asked them what it was like to be on the other side – to be the guy approving the negative ad to be used against an opponent. Snyder felt like the negative ads he ran throughout his career had been appropriate and had no regrets. Cummins recalled feeling some qualms back in 1996. One ad criticized Snyder for voting to raise taxes a certain number of times. The ad was technically true, but a number of those increases were routine and inconsequential.
"I believe everything we said was factually accurate, but you know you can be factually accurate and out of context and still be misleading," Cummins said. "I think that’s probably the rule and not the exception in political races, but I wasn’t completely comfortable with it."
This was far from the worst campaign of all time. Both men avoided personal attacks, and both said no to ads presented them by their consultants. Cummins said campaigns force a candidate to try to be effective while staying within their personal moral code. They’re tests of character, he said.
The two men had attended law school together and had been friendly before the campaign. About a year after the election, won by Snyder, they, along with Cummins’ wife, ran into each other at an airport, and they spent a few minutes mending fences. When they boarded the plane, they found they were sitting in the same row. Cummins told Snyder that proved God must have a sense of humor.
Much has changed since then. More money is involved in politics. Laws have been changed or enacted, including the one that requires candidates to say, "I approve of this message" during a television ad. Meanwhile, outside interest groups now can raise unlimited money and run whatever ads they want. In many ways, candidates have lost control of their own campaigns.
I hate negative ads. The truth is usually more nuanced than can be told in 30 seconds.
But attacks against an opponent are a reality of campaigning, and always have been. George Washington was liked by most, but since then, it’s been pretty rough out there. As Snyder put it, "The nature of our democracy is that people in very robust ways disagree with each other. I mean, we use our democratic processes to settle our differences because we think that’s more efficient than having civil wars and shooting each other."
Campaigning instead of shooting. Considering all that’s going on around the world right now, we all can approve of that message, right?
Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. His blog — Independent Arkansas — is linked at arkansasnews.com. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.