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Why Say Something Nice? US Elections Bring Out Attack Ads

Americans criticize negative political messages, but experts say they often work. Transcript of radio broadcast:

This is IN THE NEWS in VOA Special English.

The United States will hold local, state and national elections this Tuesday. Opinion studies suggest that the Democrats may be in a position to end Republican control of one or both houses of Congress.

Also, thirty-six of the fifty states will elect governors. If the Democrats gain four governor's offices, the Republicans would lose their majority at the state level. So both parties are fighting hard.

Elections in America bring a flood of political advertising, especially on television. These messages are often negative or attack ads. They point out not the good qualities of candidates, but the bad qualities of their opponents. Even if the facts are correct, how they are presented may be questionable.

Americans traditionally say they dislike negative ads. But political experts say these ads often work.

In many cases, the candidates who stand to gain from negative ads can say that their own campaigns were not involved. Outside groups or national party committees often pay for these ads.

Some are about issues, like a candidate's position on the war in Iraq or immigration. But political ads increasingly seem to be attacking candidates personally.

Some political observers say this year's election has brought more negative ads than ever before. Whether this is true remains to be proven.

But some ads have made news, like a Republican National Committee ad against Harold Ford. The Democrat is in a close race in an important Senate election in the southern state of Tennessee.

The ad was based on the fact that last year he attended a Super Bowl party held by the men's magazine Playboy. The ad showed an actress with bare shoulders saying she met him at the Playboy party. "Harold, call me," she says.

The ad might have seemed humorous, except the woman was white and Mister Ford is black. Critics said it was racist. His Republican opponent, Bob Corker, denounced the ad. It was withdrawn.

Democrats are also running attack ads. In many cases, these try to gain from President Bush's low approval ratings by linking Republican candidates to him.

But there have also been ads like the one in Florida accusing a Republican congressman of profiting from a so-called drug deal. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee was responsible for the ad.

The ad noted that Clay Shaw sold stock in a drug company after voting for changes in the Medicare program for older Americans. But the Web site says the shares were in a company that could not have profited from the legislation. is a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

Michael McDonald is a professor of government and politics at George Mason University in Virginia. He tells us that the Harold Ford ad in Tennessee appears to have increased early voting in that state. But, as he also noted, more interest in a race can mean more votes for either candidate.

IN THE NEWS in VOA Special English was written by Brianna Blake. For more election news, go to I’m Steve Ember.