Vote 2010: Nastiest Campaign on Record

From "Crazy Juice" to "Aqua Buddha" to "Man Up," a look at the ads of 2010.

November 2, 2010, 2:28 PM

Nov. 2, 2010 — -- This might be the sweet land of liberty, but Campaign 2010 has been anything but sweet.

From Rhode Island gubernatorial candidate Frank Caprio telling President Obama to "take the endorsement and shove it" to the head stomping of a liberal activist at a Kentucky event for Senate hopeful Rand Paul and to New York gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino telling a reporter, "I'll take you out buddy."

If you think what the candidates said and what their devotees did was bad, don't forget about the political ads.

A big infusion of attack ads in the last few weeks turned this election year into the most negative one on record. That's the conclusion of the Wesleyan Media Project, which followed the more than 700,000 airings of political ads since January.

"Every year there is speculation about unprecedented levels of negativity, but at least in comparison to recent campaigns, the speculation this year is correct," Wesleyan Media Project co-director Erika Franklin Fowler said in a press release.

Along with seeing more negative ads than ever this year, more than half of all ads aired were pure attack ads, researchers found.

Case in point, take the campaign ad that made it the election year when no one drank milk anymore. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's campaign made an ad hawking "Sharron Angle Crazy Juice."

Negativity Nothing New

Vanderbilt University political science professor John Geer studies campaign advertising and says the negativity is nothing new.

"Over the last 50 years, we have seen an increase in attack ads," Geer said. "It's largely because the country is polarizing. There's just more difference between candidates. Thirty years ago, candidates tended to be much more moderate. Now, they're much more likely to be far left or far right."

But for all those who think that Vote 2010, for all its bile, belittling and boorishness, is as low as we can go. Think again.

This land where our fathers died, land of the pilgrims' pride has had its share of brutal nastiness for hundreds of years.

"We worry about attacks today, but they pale in comparison to what was unfolding in the beginning part of our country's history," Geer said. "Partisan politics in the 1800s is tough stuff."

Negative Ads Have Root In Country's Founding

Go back to Vote 1828, when supporters of John Quincy Adams put out pamphlets saying Andrew Jackson's mother was a prostitute, his wife was a bigamist and that Jackson himself was a murderer.

Jackson supporters accused Adams of once procuring prostitutes for the tsar of Russia.

In 1884, one of the favorite slogans was "Ma, Ma, where's my Pa?" That was hurled at Grover Cleveland, who had a child out of wedlock.

Even before that, Thomas Jefferson was referred to as an anti-Christ. That's much more hard hitting than being labeled a flip-flopper or a witch, Geer said.

Political scientists say that the democratic process lends itself to negativity.

"You have to be able to go negative first if you want to change things. It's part and parcel of democracy," Geer said.

Even one of the principle symbols of democracy, the Declaration of Independence, is an attack document -- attacking King George III and England, Geer said.

The Constitution's Bill of Rights was the result of vicious negative campaigning by the Anti-Federalists.

What used to be done by chant and pamphlet got a boost in 1952 when the first political ad aired on television. It was an attack ad, with Dwight Eisenhower attacking Adlai Stevenson. Eisenhower won the election by a landslide.

The first ad was simple, with Eisenhower reading from cue cards at a desk, but, oh, how things have changed.

Since then, campaign strategists have become masterminds at using television to boost their candidates and to try to destroy their opponents.

The "Daisy" ad of 1964 is seminal in the study of campaign advertisement. The ad showed a little girl picking daisies who suddenly looks up to the sky as a countdown hits zero and Lyndon Baines Johnson's voice is heard saying, "These are the stakes! To make a world in which all of God's children can live, or to go into the dark. We must either love each other, or we must die."

The advertisement never mentioned Barry Goldwater's name, but alluded that Johnson's opponent would lead the country to nuclear war.

In 1988, the Willie Horton ad aimed at Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis by supporters of Republican George H.W. Bush triggered major controversy. The ad, explicitly about crime, implicitly linked African American men to crime.

Attack Ads More Personal This Year

While these ads were ugly, Geer said the advertisements this season are personal. With a year of a record number of political novices, many don't have resumes that can be easily attacked. So opponents go straight for the personal attack.

"I think there's more personal negativity because these are Congressional candidates," he said. "These are candidates at a lower level of politics where the quality of candidates varies."

So from tea partier Christine O'Donnell telling her opponent to "man up," to Carly Fiorina depicting her primary opponent as an evil wolf with red eyes in sheep's clothing, and to Jack Conway dredging up a college prank by Rand Paul involving he and his buddies called, "Aqua Buddha," it has been a nasty year.

No one is saying that Vote 2010 is the epitome of politeness, a model of etiquette, a vision of purity. It might seem unseemly and uninspiring, but one thing that it's not is un-American.