Obama Cites Questionable Study on McCain Ads

Barack Obama’s astounding assertion that “100 percent” of John McCain’s campaign ads are “negative” is based on a study that is disingenuous, if not fraudulent.

It is exactly the kind of study that surfaces from academia that the media blindly report without questioning the methodology, the data or the conclusions — especially if it conforms to the media’s biases.

Obama made the charge against McCain in the Oct.15 presidential debate, saying a look at the record shows that “100 percent, John, of your ads — 100 percent of them — have been negative.” McCain replied with something that sounded like, “It’s not true,” prompting Obama to come back with: “It absolutely is true.”

Obama apparently was referring to a study by the Wisconsin Advertising Project, affiliated with the University of Wisconsin’s political science department, reporting that “all” McCain campaign ads were negative for the week of Sept. 28, to Oct. 4 — a timeframe that Obama neglected to mention.

Beyond that glaring factual omission by Obama, there remains the questionable methodology that led the researchers to come to the “100 percent” conclusion. The problem is centered on the meaning of “negative.”

Let’s do a little test: If I say a campaign ad is negative, you’ll probably think of one that goes after the opponent’s character with some nastiness. I would hazard to say that negative advertising, in the popular mind, goes beyond spots that challenge or criticize an opponent’s positions on the issues, but also targets his image. While the dictionary definition of negative includes simple disagreement, most people — at least I and the people I know — consider negative advertising to be kin to “mudslinging.”

Consider two hypothetical ads: one says, “Sen. McCain, you’re a scoundrel who cheats on his wife and lies to the public.” The other says: “Sen. McCain, my plan for health care is better than yours, and here’s why….” Most people would consider the former to be negative and the latter informative, the kind of conversation that we should be having, and the kind of discourse that presidential debates aim to achieve.  

Now, the problem with the advertising project’s study is its definition of “negative” and how it is used. The project considers ads that “contrast” the views of the two candidates to be “negative,” in addition to the ones that you and I would consider negative. So, according to the project, if McCain says, “here’s what I would do for the economy and here’s what Sen. Obama would do,” the ad falls into the negative category.

In this way, the only positive ads are those in which the candidate talks only about himself, without mentioning the opponent. This is obviously a ridiculous standard and clearly leads to an overstatement of the number of ads that most of the public would consider “negative.” This criticism applies not just to the project’s analysis of the McCain ads, but also to Obama’s.

More problems abound: The decision to label an ad as an “attack” on an opponent is subjective, reflecting the opinion of the “coder” — the person who is viewing and rating the ads. There are a multitude of coders, most of them college students, each presumably working with his own definition of the various characterizations they are supposed to apply to the ads. The project provides some suggestions, such as (applied to the favored candidate) honest, independent, conservative, reformer, progressive, patriotic and so forth, and (as applied to the opponent) “friend or puppet” of the religious right, “extremist/radical,” reckless, liberal or unpatriotic. This study shares the problem that so many social science studies have: many variables are difficult or impossible to quantify.

As charges are hurled back and forth by the media and candidates, it doesn’t hurt to know when they are flimsy.

These final words: The project compared all the ads by both candidates and concluded, “If one allocates contrast ads as half positive and half negative or considers contrast ads as negative — as the advertising project does — the tone of the McCain and Obama campaigns has been absolutely identical.”