By Alan Burke
CNHI News Service
SALEM, Mass. - If you can't say anything nice about somebody, you must be in politics.
Or so it seems as the November election approaches and voters are inundated by a blizzard of negative campaign ads, with often ugly charges and counter-charges, delivered via television, radio, phone, Internet, mail and street signs.
Woe to the self-image of the candidate who takes them too personally.
To test how these ads are received by voters I took to the streets of Salem, Mass., hometown to the 16th century witch hysteria and one of America's oldest communities.
The conclusion: most people don't like them much, but they aren't denying they listen to them. And, in many cases, the negative message has an impact.
"Unfortunately, negative ads do work," says Peter Maguire, a retired school principal. "People remember them."
He singles out one of the most contentious campaigns in Massachusetts, the battle between sitting Congressman John Tierney, a Democrat, and his Republican challenger, former state Sen. Richard Tisei.
"I wish I could remember the good things that Tierney and Tisei have to say, but it seems all I remember is the negative," said Maguire.
Tisei has attacked Tierney over his wife's admission in federal court to helping her brother file false tax returns. The congressman has responded by linking Tisei to the Tea party -- not a popular movement in liberal Massachusetts -- and conservative Republicans Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh.
"They're not getting to the message," Maguire said. "Neither is saying what they want to do. They seem to be intent on bringing each other down."
Jennifer Frye recently arrived in Salem from Utah. Even so, she made it clear she's not a supporter of Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts governor and a Mormon with strong ties to Utah. Even so, a look of distaste crosses her face as she sighs, "The other night I saw an Obama commercial and it was pretty negative."
It's hard to learn much about the issues when these are the main talking points of the campaign, Frye said. "It's very frustrating. It seems they're just not addressing the issues and that they'd rather just attack each other. ... When one person is slamming the other, that doesn't do too much for me."
"This is all you see on TV," said Bob Dimambro of Beverly, Mass. When the negative campaign ads come on, he nods, "I change the channel. You can only listen to so much. It's like they're trying to drill it into your head."
The drilling often works in the subconscious, Dimambro conceded. Whether true or not, a negative message can subtly lower the esteem felt for this or that competitor. And it's all the more maddening when, as in the U.S. Senate race between incumbent Republican Scott Brown and Democratic challenger Elizabeth Warren, he likes both candidates.
In some cases the ads, if you can trust them — a very big if — provide useful information, said Dimambro. And that's true even when you wish you hadn't heard it, he added.
Mickey Boltas of Danvers, Mass., makes that point even clearer. "Scott Brown," he says. "A great guy. I like him. But he leans toward the wealthier people."
That Brown, who portrays himself as a pickup driving everyman, favors "millionaires and billionaires" over the middle class has been the thrust of Warren's campaign. Brown, meanwhile, has attacked Warren's "fake" claims of Native American heritage, suggesting she got an unfair advantage from it.
Boltas doesn't think negative ads are always helpful. He sees one or gets a mailing, and "I kind of shake my head. They're sometimes confusing" because they can feature quotes taken out of context, exaggerations and outright falsehoods.
The only thing Boltas likes less are appeals for money, donations perhaps aimed at producing more negative ads. "That turns me off a bit," he says. "I don't send money."
Retiree Arnold Barclay of Danvers defies conventional wisdom that negative messages work. He says downbeat ads "go in my one ear and out the other" because they are an effort by political professionals to gin up controversy and get media attention.
"Politics is a dirty business," said Barclay. "Always will be, and always has been -- going back to George Washington."
Alan Burke is a reporter for the Salem, Mass., News. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.