California Forum

Unfortunately, it’s the negative political ads that voters remember

It must be tough being a voter in the 7th Congressional District and having to cast a ballot for either Ami Bera or Doug Ose.

If all you know about them is what you’ve seen in television ads, your choice boils down to a money-grubbing Republican (Ose) who wants to return to Congress only to enrich himself, or a left-leaning Democrat (the incumbent, Bera) who cares more about pleasing President Barack Obama and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi than his own constituents.

What a dilemma.

Unfortunately, it is sad but true that an inattentive electorate – and it is an electorate that seems even more inattentive this year – may make a decision on little more than those and other misleading television ads.

This would be a good time to make sure the mute button on your TV remote is in good working order and use it liberally – in the literal, not the political, sense – because for the next two weeks we likely will be inundated with political advertising.

Negative TV ads are the coin of the realm in politics, and while most voters will tell you they dislike how nasty campaigns have become, and no matter how much they claim to hate them, negative ads work.

With all the fact-checking sources on the Web and newspapers copying The Sacramento Bee’s lead of several campaigns ago in analyzing the accuracy of such ads, it is more difficult to slip an outright lie onto the air. But distortions of fact are routine, and The Bee’s “Ad Watch,” for instance, runs only once, while the ads run night after night.

Midterm elections such as the one coming up – that is, elections between presidential election years – are pretty much the stepchild of politics. Turnout is never great. But a Pew Research study nationwide found that only 15 percent of potential voters are following politics closely this year.

The California primary in June provided a perfect example when only about 20 percent of eligible voters turned out at the polls.

“You can cut the apathy with a soggy bar coaster,” San Francisco political satirist Will Durst wrote in a recent column.

Ose and Bera certainly are not alone in using attack ads locally, but their ads do provide a textbook example of how candidates or their financial backers can twist the facts to make the worst possible point about an opponent.

In one of the Ose ads, Bera is portrayed as a free-spending hyperpartisan who would cut entitlements and is wedded to Obama and Pelosi. “Somewhat misleading,” wrote reporter Christopher Cadelago in his analysis for The Bee.

Bera did vote with the Democratic Party about 89 percent of time in the 113th Congress, but Ose voted with the GOP more than 90 percent of the time during his previous time in Congress. And Bera has on occasion split with the party.

On the other hand, a Bera ad charges Ose with being “out to serve himself” and accuses him of making millions on Wall Street while voting to loosen the rules on banks.

Cadelago wrote that the gist of the ad is unfair and that Ose was already a millionaire before being elected in 1998. He served until 2005. He did vote in 1999 to repeal parts of legislation regulating financial institutions, a repeal signed by a Democratic president, Bill Clinton.

Sure, there are so-called “positive ads,” which stress a candidate’s good deeds, but it’s simply human nature to remember insults over positive reinforcement. As I said, what a dilemma.

William Endicott is a former deputy managing editor of The Sacramento Bee.