With a month to go to primary Election Day, the sparks are beginning to fly. And the media is on hand to our gasoline on those parks.
This week, the molten lava that has been bubbling beneath the surface for weeks erupted. The Paul Mango campaign put money and air time behind an ad that featured a cartoonish character bearing an uncanny resemblance to St. Sen. Scott Wagner, his principle opponent for the GOP nomination for governor.
The ad invites viewers to meet characters with such charming names as “Slumlord Scott Wagner,” “Toxic Scott Wagner,” and even “Deadbeat Dad Scott Wagner.” It also features a coming attraction: “Violent Scott Wagner.”
After that, the Mango campaign put out a print piece detailing Scott Wagner’s support for and contributions to Democrat candidates in recent years. One that certainly raised more than a few eyebrows in central Pennsylvania was the allegation that Scott Wagner supported Kathleen Kane over David Freed for Attorney General, including donating $15,000 to her campaign.
That certainly qualifies under any definition of “negative ad.” The media response, and that of the Wagner campaign, was predictable.
Nobody likes negative campaigns. At least that’s what you’ll hear if you ask voters.
But there’s not a hotly contested campaign anywhere that doesn’t feature what somebody is going to call “negative ads.” Since the beginning of the nation negative political advertising has been part of the fabric of election campaigns. Take a look at some of the broadsides from the early days of the republic and you’ll read stuff much tougher than the “Deadbeat dad” ad.
“Politics ain’t beanbag,” has been around for more than 125 years.
Although voters consistently say they don’t like negative advertising, it’s a mainstay of political campaigns for a reason: it works. Until voters signal their unequivocal revulsion for such advertising—by voting against it—it’s sure to remain.
Of course, what’s “negative” to one person is merely “compare and contrast” to another. That’s especially true in primary elections when the philosophical differences between candidates aren’t as great and the personal differences play a larger role.
So what’s fair in love, war and politics?
First, the truth always wins. When ads are “negative,” viewers first need to know whether or not the allegations are true. The Mango campaign provided documentation for all of the charges they levied against Scott Wagner. Wagner did the same when he took shots at Mango. Informed voters can decide for themselves based upon the evidence each team provides.
Second, there are clear boundaries. Some things, even if true, are outside the lines of fair play. That’s especially true when it comes to the private lives and the families of candidates. The generally accepted rule is that what’s on the public record is fair game, what’s not is out of bounds. The thought behind that rule is that any voter could discover what’s already on the record whereas other material might be protected by privacy and ordinary decency.
That put’s the “Deadbeat Dad” charge close to the line. However, what’s charged there is on the public record. Voters can make the call for themselves as to what inferences they want to make about Mr. Wagner.
Third, context is important. When the Wagner campaign complained about the Mango ads they might have first reflected on some of the shots that they’ve taken, both privately and publicly, against Paul Mango. Sen. Wagner and company don’t exactly have clean hands when it comes to slinging mud.
One problem for both Wagner and Mango is that, historically, attack ads hurts both the attacker and the attackee. When there are other candidates in the field, they benefit from the back and forth bashing without having to do much on their own. With a third candidate in the gubernatorial field there’s always the possibility that Laura Ellsworth will come on saying, “Tired of all this? Take a look at me.”
That means it’s in the interest of both Scott Wagner and Paul Mango to shift to telling voters their respective visions for Pennsylvania’s future and what, as governor, they’ll do to make those visions reality.
They’d be wise to focus their fire on Tom Wolf, the most liberal governor in the nation, who’s sitting on a gigantic war chest and licking his chops over the litany of negatives that has become the GOP primary.