Commentary

Political Ads: Why Limit a Good Thing?

A sure bet during the post-election period is the propagation of specious proposals for solving the “problems” encountered during the recent election. A South Dakota legislator provides our favorite example since Nov. 5. Republican state Sen. Bill Napoli is circulating a bill that would only allow political advertising on radio and television during the 60 days prior to a primary or general election.

“It’s a pretty simple bill, but pretty far-reaching,” Napoli commented to the Argus Leader. “I’m proposing this because of what has happened in South Dakota in the last year-and-a-half with the incessant political advertising…We’ve had enough.”

Let’s be candid. Sen. Napoli’s proposal is dead on arrival in our constitutional democracy. He wants to make speaking out on political issues illegal. He is saying that Americans can only talk about politics when the government permits it. His idea is appalling and contrary to our First Amendment.

Napoli’s grandstanding reflects two common though mistaken assumptions about American elections. We supposedly spend too much money on political ads that are “too negative.” These assumptions have led to many proposals to reduce spending on elections and to “improve” our political discourse.

Why are these assumptions wrong? The mass media and advertising are a major way of communicating in our society. A district in the House of Representatives comprises over 600,000 citizens. Reaching that many people requires advertising and the means to pay for it.

Do we spend too much on political ads? Keep in mind what’s at stake in our elections: questions of war and peace as well as taxing and spending trillions of dollars. Given the stakes, the $1 billion or so spent in the 2002 election on ads seems trivial.

Sen. Napoli’s home state of South Dakota saw $20 million spent on ads in a Senate race between incumbent Tim Johnson and challenger John Thune, a race most observers believed might determine control of the Senate. That’s just over $60 for every South Dakota voter in the Senate contest.

Sixty dollars is a fair price to pay to inform voters about a momentous decision they must make. Those who argue for less spending on elections are really saying voters should be less informed.

The same goes for the critics of “negative” advertising. For over a decade self-styled reformers have called for regulation of such ads to “improve” our elections. Of course, these advocates of regulation never get around to defining “negative advertising.” What critics decry as “negative” ads are often no more than messages critical of a candidate or cause.

Moreover, as political scientist William Mayer says, “negative campaigning provides voters with a lot of valuable information that they definitely need to have when deciding how to cast their ballots.” Ken Goldstein, the director of the advertising project at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, adds that “negative” ads “are much more likely [than positive ads] to be about policy, to use supporting information and to be reliable. Few negative ads are on personal issues.”

Consider the recent case of Rep. Saxby Chambliss and his tough election battle against incumbent senator Max Cleland (D-Ga.). The Chambliss campaign ran several ads pointing out that Cleland had voted against President Bush’s bill to create a Department of Homeland Security. Critics howled, but the ad did inform Georgia voters of an important fact: Cleland opposed the bill.

As political scientist Robert Loewy noted, “In the recent U.S. Senate race in Colorado, I would have never learned that one of the candidates tried to put a medical incinerator in a minority neighborhood if it had not been for a good negative ad.”

Limits on “negative” ads would especially hurt challengers who must overcome the enormous advantages enjoyed by an incumbent.

Don’t negative ads tell lies about candidates? Perhaps in a few cases. However, false ads pose a risk for their sponsor. If the candidate under attack exposes the lie, the attacker loses credibility and perhaps the election. One consultant in Georgia was even sued for creating an ad in 1998 that showed a candidate for lieutenant governor in a mental ward. The target of the ad won the election.

Sen. Napoli should find another issue. Spending on political ads, especially those critical of opponents, helps democracy by informing voters. Once again we see the wisdom of the First Amendment to our Constitution.

John Samples is director and Patrick Basham senior fellow of the Center for Representative Government at the Cato Institute. Samples is also the editor of the new book “James Madison and the Future of Limited Government” (Cato Institute, 2002).