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The truth of attack ads

TALLAHASSEE — One Republican consultant calls the political attack ads between Republican Rick Scott and Democrat Alex Sink the best political show on television. Viewers call those same ads annoying, while campaigns call them crucial.

But the aggressive verbal air war between the candidates for governor waged on Florida's cable channels says more about the candidates than their campaign strategies. It also reveals a bit of decisionmaking style.

"A campaign is a reflection of the candidate," said Darrell West, a political scientist at the Brookings Institution and author of Air Wars: Television Advertising in Election Campaigns. "If somebody is shading the truth during the campaign, there's a good chance they'll do the same thing in public office."

In the past week, the race for governor got uglier as each side unleashed two of the harshest ads yet aimed at taking down the other — and a new poll shows the ads are working.

Scott's ads are more aggressive, "but he is the lesser known candidate and has to be more aggressive," said Frank Luntz, a Virginia-based Republican media consultant.

Of the six ads Scott has launched since the primary, four attempt to damage Sink by reviving old accusations ripped from newspapers or new allegations discovered by his opposition research machine.

Two of Scott's ads analyzed by PolitiFact Florida, a fact-checking project of the St. Petersburg Times and Miami Herald, were rated Barely True. Only one of Sink's ads has been analyzed so far and PolitiFact Florida rated it Mostly True.

Brian Burgess, a media consultant for Scott's campaign, said the campaign stands by the truthfulness of its ads. "We find sources that can factually verify what we say in an ad," he said. "The challenge is to boil a complex story into a 30-second TV ad, and that is not easy to do."

Scott has released four attack ads since the primary, including two last week that focused on Sink's role as a member of the three-person State Board of Administration. They attempt to paint a picture of her, the state's chief financial officer, as a failed fiscal watchdog.

Sink has released eight ads since the primary. Four attempt to both slam Scott and explain Sink. They open with Sink talking to the camera with a claim against Scott — such as questioning his integrity or asking why he "thinks running for governor is all about President Obama" — and then Sink uses the statement to contrast her record with his.

Sink's latest two ads highlight Scott's refusal to testify in a deposition after his former hospital company, Columbia/HCA, paid a record $1.7 billion federal fine.

Only Sink appears on camera when she's throwing stones. Scott leaves the mudslinging to others, relying on an announcer to lob charges that Sink "was in charge of Florida's investments" when it lost money in the stock market.

Sink, by contrast, has been less direct with her allegations and less willing to unleash new charges. Until this week, she strung together newspaper and television accounts of Scott's company federal fine and this week brought more firepower: testimonials of law enforcement and prosecutors who claim Scott can't be trusted.

Both candidates walk a delicate line as they weave their message into Florida's airwaves. They must avoid coming across as too negative and make sure they don't damage their own carefully crafted images. Because Sink has run for statewide office only once before and this is Scott's first campaign, both have had to introduce themselves to voters while bashing their opponent.

"Voters are smarter than many political professionals give them credit for; voters generally have good radar for separating fact from fiction," said Rich Davis, Sink's media consultant. But it's also true, he said, that "voters retain negative information more readily than positive."

It's a balance that Luntz — the Republican consultant — believes both Sink and Scott have done better than any other candidates in the nation.

"Alex Sink is running the best advertising campaign of any Democratic gubernatorial candidate in the country," he said. "Her ads are apolitical — she's running against the establishment and you can't really tell if she's a Democrat or a Republican."

Luntz also has high praise for Scott, saying, "He owes his entire nomination to his effective ads" and he continues an effective media campaign.

The negative ads have served their intended purpose for Scott. In a Mason-Dixon poll of likely voters conducted Oct. 4-6, Sink's unfavorable rating increased 10 percentage points in the past week. Polls this week will show how effective Sink's ads have been against Scott.

"When you have negatives like Rick Scott has, the only way you win is to raise the negatives on your opponent and then hope the higher Republican turnout will throw you over the top," said Brad Coker, Mason-Dixon's pollster.

West of the Brookings Institution said because voters now get their information from all kinds of media — not just newspapers and television — "there seems to be less accountability in the process, and it's harder to tell truth from fiction."

But Coker warns: "There is a point of diminishing returns. When people say: 'God, I'm tired of seeing this commercial.' "

The truth of attack ads 10/09/10 [Last modified: Saturday, October 9, 2010 8:11pm]
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