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How To Destroy Your Political Opponent

I don't get to watch a lot of commercials. We've kept our oldest daughter up for baseball playoff games, but we zip through all the ads for beer, bloody movies and male enhancement pills that have become as basic in baseball as peanuts and Cracker Jack.

The other night, while on the road covering a Pennsylvania congressional campaign, I holed up in a hotel room and got to watch ads from a three-state area.

Know what I learned?

Everybody running for office, Republican or Democrat, Tea Party or Green Party, is craven and untrustworthy, captive of foreign contributors — and will ship your job to China.

We had spent the day with two candidates for Congress and were impressed. One had fought in Iraq; another had battled a grave illness. They seemed thoughtful men with informed and different views on taxes, job creation and deficit reduction.

But the commercials I saw about them that night were filled with dark lighting, sinister music, grim narration and unsubstantiated assertions.

Candidates sign off on such ads — "She snorted a goldfish in college! He dressed up like Rommel for Halloween!" — to reach voters who might not vote for them on issues.

Now I know, as we say in Chicago, that "politics ain't beanbag." I appreciate a full-bodied political campaign as much as a Bears-Packers game. But an evening spent surfing through ads for Congress, Senate and governors races might make you feel like you've sat through a night of cockfights.

Campaign professionals profess they would love to make positive ads, chock-full of nutritious information. But they say candidates who run those ads usually wind up giving graceful concession speeches that make people say, "How nice."

Winners get to cast votes in Congress and appear on The Daily Show. Graceful losers watch from the sofa.

Frank Luntz, a Republican pollster who has no clients in this election, believes that ads have become notably meaner.

"The goal has become to destroy your opponent," he says, "not just defeat them."

Mr. Luntz said focus groups often complain that ads are so coarse, they make them cringe and complain, "Enough!" He'll ask questions for a minute or so, and it soon becomes clear: Despite their disdain, or maybe because of it, voters remember that ad. They quote it. It plays in their mind. It works.

Mr. Luntz calls voters, not just politicians, "hypocrites."

"They say they want ads to be positive and informative," he says, "but parrot what they hear in the negative ones."

So positive ads may be nice, but negative ads are effective. If your name were on a ballot, which would you choose?

But will we wind up being ashamed of ourselves the morning after the election?

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Simon SaysSimon Says NPR's Scott Simon Shares His Take On Events Large And Small