Attack ads, calls backfiring among voters this year

Some say all is fair in politics, but many voters this election season have had enough of attack ads, automatically dialed calls that sling aspersions at an opposing candidate and fliers that distort a rival’s record.

Of course, this isn’t the first time political parties have engaged in negative campaigning. American political mudslinging apparently had its birth before the 1792 election, when a presidential candidate published an unflattering ad about George Washington.

Voters today would welcome George Clinton’s discreet swipe at the founding father. For them, the 2008 election has produced a brand of low-road politics that upsets their sensibilities more than any other election.

Instead of dirty campaign tricks, they had hoped for a high-minded discussion of issues, because they believe the country needs a sober review of how it can, among other pressing concerns, stop a sagging economy.

Nashua resident Donna Richards, for one, can accept some mudslinging and a candidate’s occasional highlighting of a rival’s record. “But the tone now is very disrespectful and discourteous, and there’s a lot of sophomoric finger pointing,” she said.

Richards is one of several independent voters who were particularly upset with a Republican Party effort in fliers and automated dialed calls that tie Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama with former radical Weather Underground leader William Ayers.

The flier, sent to New Hampshire homes last week by the Republican State Committee, displays photos of Ayers in 1968 and Obama today. Among the large bolded statements are “Obama has close ties to domestic terrorist.” And an Ayers quote saying “I don’t regret setting bombs” is placed next to Obama to imply that the candidate made the comment.

Ayers’ anti-Vietnam War group protested U.S. policies by bombing government buildings. Nobody was hurt in the bombings.

Ayers avoided prison, and later served on the same nonprofit educational board with Obama. According to mainstream media reports, the two belonged to the same liberal-progressive Chicago political circle, but there is no evidence they were close friends. Obama has also denounced the bombings, saying he was 8 at the time.

New Hampshire residents have also received automated, or robo, calls that reportedly say: “Hello. I’m calling for John McCain and the RNC because you need to know that Barack Obama has worked closely with domestic terrorist Bill Ayers, whose organization bombed the U.S. Capitol, the Pentagon, a judge’s home and killed Americans.”

Nashua resident Joe Antonelli received a live call about Ayers that echoed the robo calls.

“I was so disgusted with it. It reeked of desperation,” he said. “To think someone would be hired to make those kinds of calls.”

Antonelli, like other independent voters interviewed for this story, was already familiar with Republican vice presidential candidate Gov. Sarah Palin earlier this month claiming on stage that Obama “was palling around with terrorists.” But the calls and fliers were the last straw, they said.

State Republican Party Chairman Fergus Cullen said the mailing was part of a national campaign strategy. Indeed, GOP committees in other states mailed the same flier.

The strategy aims to inform voters of Obama’s past, Cullen said.

“What is holding Barack Obama back in the election is doubts over whether he’s prepared to be president,” Cullen said. “Part of why people have doubts is his past associations.”

Cullen said that last week, when Sen. McCain – the Republican presidential nominee – visited St. Anselm College, he “didn’t bring it up himself. That says something.” It’s in McCain’s best interest to focus on taxes, as he did at the college, and not on Ayers, Cullen said.

Cullen pointed to how George W. Bush’s 2000 presidential campaign “took out McCain” in the South Carolina primary with “aggressive campaign tactics.” This year, “you have to give McCain credit for keeping the tone and tenor at a very high level,” Cullen said.

Democrats disagree. Dave Scannell, executive director of the state Democratic Party, said his office fielded calls from not just Democrats, but also Republicans “appalled” by the Ayers robo calls.

But Scannell said the tactic seems to have backfired.

“It’s not even penetrating,” he said. “They can repeat it, repeat it and repeat it, but people are concerned about the economy and heating their homes this winter.”

Democrats aren’t guilt free this election season. Richards recalled a Democratic mailing that was unflattering toward Republican state Senate candidate Paul Laflamme. And last week, an unidentified Republican activist complained to the attorney general’s office that Granite State Progress, a special interest group supporting Obama, had broken election laws by failing to register as a political committee.

Also, McCain’s campaign claims Obama has run “the most negative campaign in recent memory.” McCain’s staff said that between Sept. 12 and Oct. 18, Obama’s campaign ran 119,101 negative ads costing more than $65 million. Among them is a television ad “falsely claiming that McCain will cut Social Security benefits for seniors,” the McCain campaign said.

But to several independent voters, McCain has sunk lower than Obama and has all but assured they will vote Democrat.

Richards liked McCain and Republican Ron Paul during the primary season. But as the general election campaign progressed, McCain “became angry” and took his bid into “the toilet,” she said.

“As much as I have doubts about Obama, the Republicans have been a turnoff for a long time,” Richards said. “It doesn’t mean I’m a Democrat, but McCain has swayed me.”

Antonelli said the Ayers robo call has him “leaning heavily” toward Obama. McCain has shown “a little less control” lately and seems “controlled by other people,” Antonelli said.

Milford resident Bryan Higgs said he will never register with the Democratic or Republican parties, and isn’t keen on the less visible Libertarian and Green parties.

Higgs didn’t expect this presidential campaign to be any different from others, but he found the Republican Party’s Ayers flier to be “repugnant” and an example of “sleazy gutter politics.”

“We have major things happening. Now, the Obama side is not guilt free of stressing things that are not important,” Higgs said. For instance, neither McCain nor Obama will tell Americans they have to sacrifice, and both say they won’t raise taxes, he said. Higgs believes that avoiding honest talk about solutions to the economy and other issues is disingenuous.

But on Nov. 4, Higgs said he “will vote for Obama and not hold my nose. He certainly hasn’t done the sleaze that I’ve noticed with McCain.”