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TalkBack Live

Election 2000: Do Attack Ads Work With Voters?

Aired November 1, 2000 - 3:00 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

BOBBIE BATTISTA, HOST: Six days to go, the presidential race is tight and tensions are high.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

AL GORE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I have refrained from any negative personal attacks against my opponent.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BATTISTA: Not anymore. Now the candidates are shifting focus and it seems the time has come to hit the dirt.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CHRIS LEHANE, GORE CAMPAIGN SPOKESMAN: The people of this country are beginning to question whether he has what it takes to be president.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BATTISTA: It's politics and it's personal.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, BUSH CAMPAIGN AD)

NARRATOR: Remember when Al Gore said his mother-in-law's prescription cost more than his dog's? His own aide said the story was made up.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BATTISTA: TV ads, speeches, taped phone calls -- the tone is set.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, BUSH CAMPAIGN AD)

GORE: There has never been a time in this campaign when I have said something that I know to be untrue. There's never been a time when I've said something untrue.

NARRATOR: Really?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, MICHIGAN DEMOCRATIC COORDINATED CAMPAIGN)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He promised to improve the quality of life for nursing home residents, but Governor Bush broke that promise.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BATTISTA: Are there signs of desperation on either side, and would anything the candidates say or do between now and next Tuesday change your vote?

Good afternoon, everyone, and welcome to TALKBACK LIVE. When you see a campaign ad, do you believe everything that it says? Does it help you make up your mind who to vote for?

Here to talk with us about political ads and how they're created, Linda Kaplan Thaler, president and CEO of the Kaplan Thaler Group. She has worked on political ads for Bill Clinton and for Bill Bradley.

Also with us, Patrick McCarthy, a Republican media consultant with National Media. Welcome to both of you.

Linda, let start with you because we need some education here. How do you put together a political ad? Tell us a little bit about the making of it, and who makes the decisions, for example, over the copy or the style or the tone of the ad?

LINDA KAPLAN THALER, CEO, KAPLAN THALER GROUP: Well, it's not much different from working with a regular client on establishing the brand image first and what it is you want to communicate. And you're working with the strategists. You're working with who's going to be in the communications, and you're working basically on a team.

Not being from, you know, from Madison Avenue, I'm not an expert on everything that's going on in politics, so you have advisers working with you. But basically it's once the strategy is communicated to us, then we have to develop an advertising idea -- how do you communicate it.

BATTISTA: I think -- Yes, go ahead.

THALER: It's not what you say, really, it's how people are receiving your message.

BATTISTA: A lot of these ads, Patrick, are made by outside organizations that support these candidates. Isn't that correct? And how is that done? I mean, does it have to have the candidates' approval?

PATRICK MCCARTHY, REPUBLICAN MEDIA CONSULTANT: We're not allowed to be coordinated with campaigns. In fact, it's one of the problems with our current campaign finance system is that we have so restricted the ability of candidates to raise and spend money, that these outside groups are spending it on their behalf.

And quite frankly that's probably one of the reasons why you see more negative ads because the candidates aren't allowed to spend money telling us what they believe. Instead, outside groups run ads which advocate their agenda rather than the candidates' agenda.

BATTISTA: Let me get you -- we lost some of your audio there at the top. Does -- the sponsor of an ad always has to identify himself, at the same time, is the candidate still held accountable for whatever is in that ad.

MCCARTHY: I think in the voters' minds the candidates may be held accountable, it is quite frankly by law a separate expenditure which is independent of the candidates. And so those ads really are not representative necessarily of what the candidates believe but the groups airing them believe.

BATTISTA: Let's take a look at a couple of controversial ads and talk about them.

This first one was sponsored by a group that not much is known about. It's a group called Aretino Industries and I think when you watch it you'll see it's reminiscence of a political ad that ran back in the '60s, so let's take a look.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, ARETINO INDUSTRIES AD)

NARRATOR: Under Republican leadership and vision, the Cold War was ended, securing our children from the threat of a nuclear confrontation.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD ACTRESS: 1, 2, 3.

NARRATOR: Now under eight years of Clinton-Gore, our security has been sold to communist Red China in exchange for campaign contributions. Red China was given access and sold vital technology that will now give China the ability to threaten our homes with long- range nuclear warheads.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: 4, 5, 6.

NARRATOR: If Clinton-Gore are capable of selling our children's security, what else are they capable of? Can we really afford to take that chance?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: 7, 8, 9.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BATTISTA: We want to talk about that ad, but we'll have to put it on hold for just a moment and throw to a Bush rally going on in Minneapolis at this moment. And so let's listen to what the candidate has to say.

(INTERRUPTED FOR LIVE EVENT)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BATTISTA: All right. Linda and Patrick are still with us, but let me bring two other guests in now. Roger Stone is a Bush supporter and Republican strategist. He worked on the Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan presidential campaigns. And Michael Kinsley: a Gore supporter and editor of the online magazine" Slate.com.

Good to see you both.

Before we got interrupted there by the Bush rally, we had just looked at that ad that aired that was very reminiscent of that infamous "Daisy" ad from the 1960s that talked about nuclear annihilation. What we were trying to get at what was wrong, what was right with that ad, if it was over the top, if it was too negative.

Michael, has -- do you think there's been a shift in the focus here? I mean, is there a lowering of the rhetoric, if you will, in the last week of the campaign?

MICHAEL KINSLEY, SLATE.COM: Well, lowering or a rising, depending on how you choose to interpret the metaphor. This whole fuss about negative -- negative campaigning is sort of silly for a couple reasons. First of all, you've got George Bush -- and Hillary Clinton, too, for that matter -- going out there saying: My opponent is awful because he's negative.

And, of course, that in itself is negative. And then the other point is, there's nothing wrong with being negative, to say: I am better than my opponent for this reason. He has these defects. She has these defects. I have these advantages. What is wrong when it is unfair, or inaccurate or unrepresentative.

And that is the problem with that "Daisy" ad, is that it implies ludicrously that, if you vote for Al Gore, you are going to find yourself in a nuclear war. Not the fact that it is negative, but the content of the ad is what is wrong with it.

BATTISTA: Roger, I think it was the late Lee Atwater, who people know, was kind of the king of hardball politics there, who said: If you are going to get down and dirty, do it late in the campaign. Why is that?

ROGER STONE, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Well, first of all, I think a lot of political strategists, political consultants can't help themselves here. The problem with negative advertising is: It works. The very same voters who tell you in the polls that they don't like it, that they hate it, will turn around and tell you the exact content of the ads. And we know, from intensive polling going on now, that these ads do move voters from over here to over here.

There are a couple of problems with the "Daisy" ad you just showed us. First of all, it was incredibly poorly made. Secondarily -- and I'm a Bush supporter -- but there's only circumstantial evidence that the Clinton administration sold nuclear secrets to the Red Chinese for campaign contributions. No candidate would make that charge. It's not a supportable charge. There's some circumstantial evidence that that may have been the case, but it is unproven, therefore unfair. And that was an unfair attack. If so-called negative or comparison advertising is going to be effective, it should be footnoted, it should indisputable on the facts. That kind of a cheap shot -- and I think that's what that ad was -- really doesn't serve the body politic. And I think it is ineffective. Voters are not stupid. They can see through a late, unsupported charge.

BATTISTA: Will...

MCCARTHY: That's why the new ad from the Bush campaign is actually so effective, because it uses Al Gore to deliver their message. It's Gore on camera responding to Al -- to Senator Bradley in a debate. And that ad is so honest, because it is Al Gore delivering the message.

BATTISTA: Linda, what is your take on that ad?

THALER: You know, I've got to say, when you are the vice president of the United States, the greatest country in the world, you are being interviewed and videotaped 24-seven for eight years, obviously there's a point where you are going to say something that contracts something else.

The fact is that who -- you know, it's like the -- who is here the pot calling the kettle black? Bush, in the last few months, has committed more gaffs than anybody could imagine. It's not that hard to say subliminal. I mean, I don't under -- I think that he should be very careful of making attacks about a personal discrepancy, when he's making them all the time.

MCCARTHY: But, Linda, you worked for Bill Bradley. This spot was a response to Bill Bradley saying in a debate: How can we trust Al Gore as president if we can't trust him as a candidate?

It is a very legitimate issue. It is one that has trailed Al Gore for years. It's not just this campaign. It's been around for several election cycles. And it's a legitimate issue. And we use Al Gore to deliver the message in a very honest, straightforward manner.

BATTISTA: All right, before we...

KINSLEY: Well, I don't think that ad is honest at all. You know, you have Al Gore saying: I tell the truth.

And I suppose George Bush believes he tells the truth, too. But he's the guy who said that he worked together with Democrats in Texas to pass a patients' bill of rights, when in fact it passed over his veto, which seems to be a lie more brazen and more relevant to the campaign and the issues facing our country than anything Al Gore has said about who he went to some storm damage ride with.

(CROSSTALK)

BATTISTA: Let me take a quick break here, while I can. And we will look at an anti-Bush ad when we get back and continue with our discussion. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BATTISTA: All right we're back. Let's take a look at another controversial ad. This was the ad known as the Byrd ad that was put out by the NAACP. Let's take a look.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RENEE MULLINS, DAUGHTER OF JAMES BYRD: I'm Renee Mullins, James Byrd's daughter. On June 7, 1998 in Texas, my father was killed. He was beaten, chained and then dragged three miles to his death, all because he was black. So when Governor George W. Bush refused to support hate crimes legislation, it was like my father was killed all over again.

Call George W. Bush and tell him to support the hate crimes legislation. We won't be dragged away from our future.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BATTISTA: Michael, what are the risks of an ad such as that?

KINSLEY: Well, I guess the risk is that it could backfire -- people say you're implying that George W. Bush...

BATTISTA: I'm sorry. Forgive me, please. I have to interrupt again and throw to Natalie in the newsroom for some breaking news -- Natalie.

(INTERRUPTED FOR BREAKING NEWS)

BATTISTA: Welcome back. We're talking about negative ad campaigning during the campaigns here and let me see if I can pick up the thread of where we were.

But, Michael I think I was asking you about the risks that the candidates take when they engage in negative campaigning.

KINSLEY: Yes, it's a risk in that particular ad from the NAACP, which, of course, was an independent ad, not Gore's. And that is why it said, sort of ludicrously at the end, call up George Bush and tell him what you think, because it has to have some explanation for why it's running besides the real one, which is it's running to help Gore get elected. But there is a chance that people will associate it with the candidate and say, look, that is just an unfair hit there. They are implying that George Bush is somehow or other connected with the murder of someone, which is unfair.

I think that that ad is not unfair, because, once again, George Bush implied in the debates that he supported hate crimes legislation. And in fact, he didn't. So I think it's fair. But there's a danger that people would disagree with me and hold it against them.

BATTISTA: Roger, how much effect do these kinds of ads have on the voter, or voter turnout? STONE: I think they actually tend to depress voter turnout. I think that a very large number of those people who are undecided in the polls today, this late, with this overabundance of information about the candidates are in fact not going to vote. Many of those voters are disaffected and turned off by the process and very largely by this back and forth, nasty, slashing, negative advertising. It tends to depress voter turnout and, therefore, it might be easier to figure out who's going to win here. Because this undecided, that everyone is saying they're going to break for this candidate or that candidate. In fact, many of them, I'd go so far as to say most of them, are not going to vote at all.

BATTISTA: Patrick, if your opponent is engaging in negative campaigning, can your candidate afford not to? can your candidate afford not to?

MCCARTHY: For the most part, as a rule, we say, don't let a charge go unanswered. The way you answer a charge, though, may be with a positive spot. The way you answer a charge may be to put your candidate on the air, speaking frankly, directly into the camera in a more honest way than, you know, the voice of God narrator spot with the grainy photos that is so typical of negative advertising.

So, I would say first, you don't want to let your opponent make a decision about what the race is going to be about. Part of what we do in of the last week of the campaign is not necessarily convince people of new information, but we frame what the question is that we're answering with this election. We tell them what the choice is.

And so, your advertising can move people into a frame of mind that this election is about bigger government or smaller government, which we as Republicans tend to want to do. Or Al Gore to make it into a race about whether or not we have a prescription drug benefit. So the decision that voters are making on election day is important and the advertiser can drive it to frame the debate, so to speak, not only to bring new information to voters.

BATTISTA: Let me go to the audience here quickly.

Pat, your thoughts?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I just think that it appeals, it's sensationalism. It appeals to our emotions and not our intellect. It really makes me sort of, it makes me sort of mad in some ways and it also makes me emotional. Because I wish that they looked upon us as being more intelligent voters.

BATTISTA: So, it's a bit insulting.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's insulting, yes it is. And, because I'm not going to go out there and vote based on this sensationalism and I would hope that most Americans wouldn't either. And that we'll be able to look through all of this crap and determine who we are going to vote based on our intellect, rather than our emotions.

BATTISTA: Linda, why... MCCARTHY: Keep in mind, though, that we are not talking to most Americans right now in this campaign. Most Americans have made up their mind as to who they're going to vote for. We're talking to the people on the edges, the three percent that might go either way in this election. And that is why the advertising is not meant for most folks.

BATTISTA: Go ahead, Linda.

THALER: Yes, I don't know if I agree. I know we are talking about the swing votes and all of that, and the people who are independents. But I feel like we, certainly from the Gore's point of view, should be talking to everybody in the Democratic Party, because I think that there are a lot of people -- like we're in New York state here, we're not seeing any advertising. Maybe we should.

I mean, a lot of information and feelings and we do get motivated by our emotions, not just our intellect. We have left brains and right brains, is an overriding air cover or image or message in these last crucial days before we vote that goes out to the entire country. Because something that someone hears in Florida immediately gets on the Internet or the phone to me and I talk to somebody and California and cultural things are happening at lightning speed now because of the technology.

MCCARTHY: Linda, you are right, but Al Gore is running 17 different spots all over the country. They are running state-specific advertising and George Bush is talking to the nation. And I think that shows another difference between these candidates, which is, George Bush is talking about a vision for the future and Al Gore is running a very tactical, very focused campaign that's driven, based on, how can we move the race one point here, one point there? And I think in a presidential contest as opposed to running for governor or senator, you do have to offer that consistent theme for the country, but Al Gore has not.

KINSLEY: Another way to put that very same point is that George W. Bush is talking in the generalities, appealing to emotions as the woman in the audience said and Al Gore is talking specifics and talking issues and talking things that will really affect people's lives.

STONE: The truth of the matter here, and I think we lose sight of this is that politics is theater and you have to compete with what is, essentially, entertainment. Now, voters will tell you in all of these polls that we like issues, we like position papers, we like white papers, but try putting that out there and you will see your television ratings drop to nothing because the voters don't watch it. They would rather watch the World Series. Try selling it to reporters. Put it out in your white paper and see if it ever appears on page one of the "New York Times." It won't. Controversy generates attention. Attention generates voter interest and voter interest is what makes people decide.

So we're not Luddites here. We live in the age of television. Television is in fact entertainment. And if your spots are not provocative, aren't interesting, nobody will watch them and they won't affect anybody.

MCCARTHY: You feel-good advertising. Advertising is not just about information. It's about a feeling. And good advertising is emotional. And that's why, in this NAACP spot, I would argue they go over the line. But clearly, whoever produced this spot was trying to have an emotional appeal with voters. And they went right up against it -- maybe over. And -- but that is good advertising. It's finding where that line is and getting as close to it as you can without going over.

KINSLEY: And what we are seeing now, though, wouldn't you say, is more like feel-bad advertising? It's like that NAACP ad, and like some ads that Republicans are running, supposed to make people feel alarmed, feel upset. And it's part of this, I think, innately nonsensical thing about saying: My opponent is being negative and that's awful.

(CROSSTALK)

MCCARTHY: But some -- some medicine is bitter, Michael. And that might be the right medicine that voters want

(CROSSTALK) BATTISTA: You know, the other thing -- the other thing we have seen in the campaign is that we've seen, after hearing about the issues for quite some time here -- at least in the last few months - we've now seen a return to the original charges against each other. We have seen Gore coming out more now and claiming that George Bush is not qualified to be president. And we have seen Bush, on the other hand, coming out and saying -- you know, or reiterating his thought that Gore doesn't have much integrity.

So they're returning to those personal-attack strategies, as well. Is that good?

THALER: Well, I think what's happening is a case now of what we call a perpetual check, where each person is afraid to make a bold move for fear of some kind of a blunder. I mean, it's almost like two Samurai braves locking eyes, waiting for someone to blink. And it's curious, because you would think, at this point, that somebody would take on new bold ground and really sort of go out there and say: OK, we're really going to truly take the lead. And here is how we are going to do it.

And I think there is a fear on that part -- and why the advertising in general doesn't have a really highly passionate quality to it. It tends to be pretty...

STONE: Well, the only thing, though -- the other thing that is true is here, though, is that the Gore campaign was predicated on a strategic assumption that the vice president would destroy Governor Bush in the debates. And that didn't happen. And, in fact, I would argue that Governor Bush came across as more likable, and therefore benefited enormously from the debates. Therefore, the Gore campaign has had to retool. What you have seen, really, is kind of an attack-of-the-week, as they search here for a silver bullet that probably doesn't exist. First it was his record in Texas. Then we got off of that. Then it was the fallacy of his Social Security program. But then we got off of that. Now we're back to the personal thing: where he is not capable, he's not experienced enough, he is not smart enough -- is what they're trying to say -- to be president.

Voters, I think, will reject that as well. And you can tell from the tone of these two campaigns right now who is ahead and who is behind.

BATTISTA: What -- what do you guys think of the campaigns overall? Do you think they're particularly well-run?

THALER: Well, I think Bush is making an interesting point by talking about empowering people, by saying, you know, he trusts the government and: I trust you. And I think anybody who make a message that tells people: You're more intelligent, I think very highly of you, I trust you, makes people feel empowered and it feels good about themselves.

But I think, generally, the United States right now is sort of in a state of amnesia in terms of the last eight years, where we saw tremendous prosperity. And I think kind of Bush is sort of hypnotizing us into believing it's about personality, and I am a nice guy -- rather, the reality, the fact that we have never had this kind of prosperity before. And it didn't happen, you know, on automatic pilot.

MCCARTHY: It's also the case that, in the last week of a campaign, it's difficult to introduce a new topic. It's hard to like introduce a totally new debate. What the two campaigns are doing is this: The Bush campaign is summarizing all the reasons why Americans have not gravitated toward Al Gore. The Gore campaign is trying to resurrect and issue which was answered in the debates. Roger is exactly right.

There was a legitimate question early on this race about whether Governor Bush had the experience to be president. The Gore campaign and the pundits and everyone said: The debates are going to be crucial. They will show us whether or not this man has the mettle to be president, whether he has the experience to sit in the Oval Office. And by virtually a unanimous conclusion, he at least tied, if not won those debates. And he conclusively answered that question.

So Al Gore is trying to change what people believe, given that outcome of those debates, whereas the Bush campaign is only reminding them of what they believe and what they have been thinking all along. And it started with Bill Bradley. It's not something new.

BATTISTA: Well, I have I question for Michael. But I have got to take a break. So I will ask it when we get back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BATTISTA: What I was going to ask Michael there, it was kind of follow-up to what Linda had said, that, if what she said was true about the Gore campaign, then why isn't Al Gore farther ahead in this race?

KINSLEY: Well, I guess I disagree with Linda. I think that Al Gore is a very good man who will make a very good president. And the fact that he is not further ahead -- or that's he not ahead -- is -- suggests that he has not been running as good of a campaign as he should have.

BATTISTA: All right. We've got to go. And I want to thank you all for being so patient today with all the interruptions. Appreciate it. Linda Kaplan Thaler, Patrick McCarthy...

THALER: Thank you.

BATTISTA: ... Michael Kinsley, Roger Stone, thank you all so much.

And we'll see you again tomorrow at 3:00 for more TALKBACK LIVE. "STREET SWEEP" is next.

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