John Kerry is embarking on a new round of campaign ads that deliver the upbeat message that the United States is “a country of optimists” — a contrast to President Bush’s commercials criticizing his Democratic rival.
At this stage in the presidential race — five months before Election Day — the incumbent typically highlights his own accomplishments while the challenger tries to undercut the White House occupant. That’s not the case this year in a campaign that political analysts say could be the most negative yet.
“Bush is going full blast against Kerry,” said John Geer, a Vanderbilt University professor who has studied 40 years of presidential campaign ads. “It’s somewhat surprising, but it’s not unlike what we’ve seen from previous incumbents who’ve been in trouble.”
Recent polls show Bush’s approval ratings at the lowest point of his presidency, with some in the low 40s. Two of the most negative presidential advertising campaigns were in 1992 and 1980, years in which two incumbents — George H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter — lost re-election.
The Bush campaign mostly has run ads that try to portray Kerry as a flip-flopping liberal who would raise taxes and remains weak on national security. The few commercials that have accentuated the Republican’s attributes have aired fewer times.
Mary Matalin, a senior adviser to Bush’s re-election campaign, defended the campaign’s approach during an interview on NBC’s “Today” show and said Bush’s ads aren’t negative. “We’re not making up anything. These ads are Kerry’s own words or Kerry’s own records,” Matalin said.
Kerry’s campaign has used Bush’s negative ads — and misleading statements in some — to claim Bush isn’t fit for the White House.
“We believe voters want to hear how to make America stronger not to tear it down,” said Mary Beth Cahill, Kerry’s campaign manager. “John Kerry is running a positive ad campaign based on his record, and that’s something George Bush simply cannot do.”
Kerry not always positive
But Kerry hasn’t always stayed positive this year. He ran more than a dozen ads in Iowa and New Hampshire assailing Bush during the Democratic primary, and five such ads in March and April after securing the nomination.
Still, Kerry’s commercials have been wholly positive since early May when he launched his biographical spots. His latest commercial, unveiled Tuesday and set to begin airing Wednesday in 19 states, focuses on his domestic and foreign agenda.
“We’re a country of the future. We’re a country of optimists. We’re the can-do people,” Kerry says in the ad, part of an $18 million buy for June. It doesn’t mention Bush but is meant to subtly contrast Kerry’s proposals with Bush’s record.
Political analysts say there’s no reason for Kerry to draw sharper contrasts now, given the bad news coming from Iraq and the fact that Kerry’s allies among independent groups are running anti-Bush ads.
Matthew Dowd, Bush’s chief strategist, said the Bush campaign could run spots about the president this fall, but said there was no need for such ads now because the GOP base solidly supports the president. Some of Kerry’s support, Dowd argued, is soft and could be swayed.
Dowd said he didn’t think Kerry’s upbeat ads have helped the Democrat or that Bush’s critical ads have hurt him, largely because the heavy news period has blunted the effectiveness of all ads.
Bush hurt on the low road?
But Kerry’s strategists believe that taking the high road has improved Kerry’s image, while Bush has been hurt by taking the low road. Kerry strategists cited independent polls, including last week’s National Annenberg Election Survey from the University of Pennsylvania that showed that 44 percent of people in battleground states where ads are running the heaviest view Kerry favorably, up from early May when 39 percent had a favorable impression.
The survey also showed Bush’s image deteriorating in the same states, with 44 percent of people surveyed viewing the president favorably, a drop from 48 percent in early May.
Mark Mellman, Kerry’s pollster, said: “The president’s ad campaign is backfiring against him.”
But Adam Clymer, the survey’s political director, said there’s no evidence to indicate that, particularly because Bush’s slippage has occurred throughout the nation — not just where his negative ads are running.
“It’s the news that’s affecting him,” Clymer said.
Regardless, Geer predicted an end to positive ads in the coming months, saying: “Rest assured that Kerry will go after Bush before the end of this election.”