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The Ad Race

by Gail Robinson

09 October 00

The cartoon figure, a patient from the children's game "Operation," appears on the screen. An arm, intended to be Hillary Clinton's, plunges an electric "medical instrument" into the patient's genitalia as a narrator describes Clinton's ill-fated health-care plan. "If you trust Hillary Clinton, maybe you should see your doctor," he says. "While you still can."

If the advertisement, which ran last month, was shocking and crude, it was hardly novel. Sponsored by the New York Conservative Party, it was emblematic of the negative, so-called "issue ad," paid for by someone other than one of the candidates.

In New York, the ads themselves have become not just a campaign strategy, but a campaign issue, threatening to overshadow all others. Last month, the two major-party candidates for the U.S. Senate, Hillary Clinton and Rick Lazio, officially swore off ads paid for by anybody else. But at the end of last week the Republican National Committee admitted it had in fact paid for a new Lazio campaign commercial, putting the candidates' pact in jeopardy.

Campaign ads, critics say, reduce serious debate to sound bites, and scare elected officials into avoiding any actions or positions, no matter how principled, that cannot be explained in 10 seconds.

Campaign ads are also single-handedly driving up the cost of campaigns. The contest for television time has been likened to the arms race, with politicians desperate to ensure that their opponents will not air more commercials than they themselves do. And this desperation has created the need for the "soft money" contributions that so many people see as corrupting the electoral process, perhaps even threatening the nature of our democracy.

Some respond that bruising campaigns are good for democracy and that campaign ads are just part of the unfettered speech protected by the Constitution and the courts.

But for a long time, reformers have urged limits on ad spending and on the commercials themselves, saying that the networks should instead provide free airtime to the candidates. Indeed, two and a half years ago, President Clinton called on the Federal Communications Commission to do just that. The FCC complied. And then members of Congress forced the commission to reverse itself.


One of the answers might best be provided with an illustration: WNBC in New York, dubbed the second greediest television station in the nation, raked in almost $7 million on campaign ads from January to July of this year--but still refused to air last Tuesday's presidential debate.


In 1952 Walt Disney produced a spot for presidential candidate Dwight Eisenhower in which an animated Uncle Sam declared, "I like Ike". Campaign advertisements became more sophisticated and more negative in the 1960s, and 1964 brought perhaps the most controversial political advertisement ever made. It depicted a girl removing petals from a daisy. Then a countdown begins, culminating in an atomic explosion as President Lyndon Johnson intones, "We must either love each other or die. Vote for Lyndon Johnson. The stakes are too high for you to stay home."

The Johnson campaign withdrew the commercial after one airing, but negative ads remained a key part of the political scene. In 1988, for example, then Vice President George Bush melded images of his Democratic presidential opponent, Michael Dukakis, with pictures of convicted rapist Willie Horton.


While political commercials have been on television for about 50 years, the dispute over money and the advertising it buys is particularly important in this year -- especially in New York.

That prominence probably became inevitable once Senator John McCain of Arizona declared his bid for the Republican presidential nomination. McCain was cosponsor of legislation that would ban soft money contributions.

There are ceilings--$1,000 per individual -- on donations to a candidate. But there is no limit on so-called 'soft money' contributions that contributions that people, companies, interest groups and organizations can make to political parties to purchase ads attacking a candidate or purporting to espouse an idea rather than a candidate.

Thus, wrote Jonathan Krasno in The Washington Post, "A commercial criticizing a candidate for his putative support of child pornographers ... would fall outside campaign finance laws--and avoid disclosure of its sponsors--if it did not instruct viewers to 'vote against' the candidate."

During the primary season, McCain and former Senator Bill Bradley, who was seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, sought to boost their underdog candidacies against well-funded opponents by vowing they would not use soft money if they became their parties' candidates.

In the general election, Gore and Bush are accepting soft money. Gore has suggested a ban on it, but no one has taken the suggestion very seriously. With both candidates awash in soft money, it would take almost superhuman restraint for either of them to not buy ads with it.


But such restraint is exactly what New York Senate candidate Rick Lazio was urging when he strode across the stage at the candidates' September 13 debate to demand that Clinton to sign a pledge to eschew ads paid for by soft money.

Clinton and Lazio are enmeshed in what is likely to be the nation's first $100 million Senate campaign. As of September 30, Lazio's campaign had raised $30 million, with Clinton setting its total fundraising at $24.5 million.

By August 30, Clinton had also raised $3.3 million in soft money, while Lazio had no special soft-money fund, although groups such the Conservative Party were airing commercials on his behalf.

The gap may well be what spurred Lazio to try to stop soft-money ads. Political observers believe the issue also meshed well with Lazio's campaign, which has sought to portray Hillary Clinton as somehow not trustworthy or honest.

After much back and forth, the two sides agreed on the ad ban, although both continue to raise soft money for other purposes. And some of the groups that had been hoping to air commercials are reluctant to put down the cudgel. "There are right-to-life groups, the Sierra Club, police groups, unions, gay and lesbian organizations . . . a huge number of groups on both sides," says Kelli Conlin, executive director of New York State's National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League which planned to spend $500,000 to support Clinton.

"If advertising weren't so pervasive and effective in reaching so many voters, this wouldn't be such an issue."


After ripping Lazio's record on health-care maintenance organization reform and hate-crime legislation, a Clinton ad says, "the more you know" about the Republican candidate, "the more you wonder".

A Lazio ad counters: "So, Mrs. Clinton, you can run a negative campaign about tearing people down. I'm going to run a campaign about building New York up".

Like Lazio, most candidates profess to want to stress the positive, but many experts believe negative ads work. The research, though, is unclear. A 1998 study concluded that "negative ads are no more effective than positive political ads".

The Institute for Global Ethics found that 68 percent of respondents to a survey said it was fair to criticize an opponent for talking one way and voting another.

But, a McCain ad that accused Bush of "twist[ing] the truth" like President Clinton apparently went too far. Among Republicans, says Brad Rourke, director of the Project on Campaign Conduct, that was "tantamount to comparing someone to Saddam Hussein or worse."


In deciding whether or not to liken their foe to a Middle East despot, most candidates focus on one thing: Will it help them on Election Day? But more neutral observers often focus on whether the ads are good for the country. Advocates of campaign reform argue that moneyed interests have an unfair edge, making voters cynical. "Our democracy is dangerously close to becoming a government of, by, and for wealthy special interests," Common Cause President Scott Harshbarger has said. "Those who can't pay are left with little confidence that the process works for them."

Writing after the 1996 campaign, Doug Bandow, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute said the total spent on all federal races that year "was still only $2.8 billion. That's about $10 a person, or one CD. . . . And most of the ongoing state reforms, like public funding, spending limits and contribution restrictions, will only make things worse."

For their part, voters, in a survey taken after the 1998 elections, found most were fairly positive about the election process and outcome. But 58 percent said campaign commercials were not very useful in helping them choose a candidate, and 68 percent saw the 1998 campaigns as being more negative than those in previous years.


Broadcasters raked in about $500 million on political ads in 1998, and estimates of this year's take range from $600 million to $1 billion. To bring in almost $7 million on political ads in the first seven months of 2000, WNBC aired 2,079 campaign spots. In the city, WCBS was second with $4.8 million, WABC third with $5.6 million and Fox a distant fourth with $1.3 million, according to the 2000 Alliance for Better Campaigns.

New Jersey' Bergen County Record noted that, in the first four months of 2000, the stations in the top 75 media markets aired 151,267 political ads costing $114 million. "But in the month preceding the March 7 Super Tuesday primaries, the average time allotted nightly to candidate discourse by the major networks was 42 seconds for CBS, 39 seconds for ABC, and 29 seconds for NBC."

In an attempt to level the field a bit, President Clinton said in 1998 that the Federal Communication Commission would require free or low-cost airtime for candidates to discuss issues. Members of Congress blocked the move, arguing that a federal regulatory agency did not have the power to enact such a requirement.

Why? "Many politicians in power tend to fear free air time for the leg up it would give to challengers," Charles Lewis wrote in the Columbia Journalism Review. "More than that, free air time for political candidates would directly affect the bottom line of a very important industry--the media industry."

A recent report by the Center for Public Integrity credits the media industry with beating back such proposals. The National Association of Broadcasters and five media outlets, including ABC and CBS, spent a total of $11 million to defeat bills mandating free airtime. The industry has given generously to many candidates, including George W. Bush and Al Gore. McCain, who said the FCC would have been "overstepping its authority" by mandating free airtime, is Congress's top recipient of that largesse with more than $685,000 in contributions.

Reform groups are now pressuring networks to voluntarily provide the time. (CBS's New York station has agreed.)

While proponents of free airtime argue that the airwaves are a public resource, opponents argue that the measure would violate the First Amendment rights of the broadcasters.


Free television time might seem like a godsend to a candidate like Liz Krueger who has raised about $350,000 for her race against incumbent Republican Roy Goodman to represent Manhattan's East Side in the State Senate. Even at this level, says her campaign manager, Kas Stolzman, "The big constraint for any candidate is the same as nationwide--it's money."

To attract support for their candidacies, Krueger and Goodman will send letters and go out on the streets to meet voters. Krueger, Stolzman says, is passing out cups of coffee to urge voters to "wake up the State Senate." Goodman is doing some radio and is advertising on cable television which, he says, has become "increasingly popular" for local races. His ads will stress that he has been called "the statesman of the state senate" and that he has passed significant legislation in Albany.


But flashy television ads could drown out such modest local efforts. In addition to the entreaties from Lazio and Clinton, New Yorkers can hardly avoid the many ads for New Jersey Democratic Senate candidate Jon Corzine. His Republican opponent, Robert Franks, is now starting to advertise too, as are a few congressional candidates.

But campaign-weary New Yorkers are fortunate. With polls showing Al Gore with a big lead in the state, New Yorkers are not subjected to many ads from Gore or George W. Bush. Viewers in Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania and other "battleground" states must envy us.


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