Maybe Dustin Ingalls is guilty of nothing more than being honest to a fault. But in doing so, he offered many North Carolinians justification for why they hate politics.
Ingalls, a pollster in Raleigh, was talking to the Cumberland County Democratic Men’s Club in Fayetteville on Tuesday. He was assessing the race for governor between Republican Pat McCrory and Democrat Walter Dalton.
“To win, we have to raise a lot of money, first of all, and we have to absolutely eviscerate McCrory,” Ingalls told the Democrats, according to the Fayetteville Observer. “There’s no way to prop up Dalton enough. We have to just slash McCrory – death by a thousand cuts.” He added: “It’s going to have to be a very negative campaign.”
OK, it’s not like saying we should round up all the gays and enclose them in an electric fence until they die. But for folks who still have fanciful dreams of politics being a reasoned debate in the marketplace of ideas, it makes you cringe.
Voters aren’t naïve. They know politics is a blood sport. They know candidates and their backers twist the truth and play up any facet of their opponents’ backgrounds that can be used to tear them down. Most even know that McCrory is ahead in the polls and Ingalls, the assistant director of Public Policy Polling, was saying what many strategists on both sides already believed.
Still, Ingalls’ unvarnished approach reflected poorly on him, on his employer, on Democrats and on political campaigns. And it reflected what we’ve already seen, almost six months before the election: Negative TV ads from Republicans against Dalton and from Democrats against McCrory.
Both are misleading in some ways. The ad against McCrory, paid for by the Democratic Governors Association, suggests McCrory lobbied the state for millions in tax breaks for a company on whose board he sat – a clear conflict if true. But it’s not. McCrory asked the Commerce Department for help keeping Lending Tree headquartered in Charlotte in 2006, something most Charlotte residents would support. He didn’t join the board until three years later, and by then it was a different company with different ownership.
The ad against Dalton, funded by the Republican Governors Association, makes very selective use of statistics to link Dalton to job losses, in a way that experts told WRAL was “lazy economic analysis.”
So you can see where all this is headed, from the presidential race to local ones. According to a study from Wesleyan University in Connecticut, 70 percent of ads in the presidential race so far have been negative, compared with 9 percent at this point in 2008.
We don’t think voters should be turned off by all negative advertising. Telling the truth about a candidate’s record is fair game, and can be helpful to voters. But there’s a line that’s easy to cross, when innuendo, fun with numbers, lack of context and other tricks of the trade take an ad beyond mere truth-telling.
Is it hopelessly unsophisticated to wish for better? We know, strategists use attack ads because, by and large, they work. They can also backfire. Ask Elizabeth Dole about her desperate 2008 ad suggesting that Kay Hagan thinks “there is no God.”
McCrory and Dalton, and candidates in other races, should take a pledge. A pledge not to run ads that are clearly unfair. A pledge to denounce sleazy ads from independent groups. After all, McCrory and Dalton see things differently enough that they can distinguish themselves without stretching the truth.