By Alan Burke
---- — If you can't say anything nice about somebody, you must be in politics.
Or so it seems as November approaches and voters are inundated by a blizzard of negative campaign ads, with often ugly charges and even uglier counter-charges, delivered via television, radio, Internet, mail and street signs. Woe to the self-image of the candidate who takes them too personally.
Most people we encountered on the street yesterday don't like the ads much, either. But most aren't denying that they listen. And in many cases these advertisements have an impact.
"Unfortunately, negative ads do work," says Peter Maguire, a retired school principal now working as a docent at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem. "People remember them."
He singles out one of the most contentious campaigns, the battle between sitting Congressman John Tierney, a Salem Democrat, and his Republican challenger, former state Sen. Richard Tisei of Wakefield.
"I wish I could remember the good things that Tierney and Tisei have to say, but it seems all I remember is the negative," Maguire said.
Tisei has attacked Tierney over his wife's admission in federal court to helping her brother file false tax returns. The congressman has responded by linking Tisei with conservative Republicans like Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh.
"They're not getting to the message," Maguire said. "Neither is saying what they want to do. They seem to be intent on bringing each other down."
Jennifer Frye is a Salem resident recently arrived from Utah. Even so, she makes it clear she's not a supporter of presidential candidate Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor and Mormon with strong ties to Utah. Despite that, a look of distaste crosses her face as she sighs, "The other night I saw an (President Barack) Obama commercial and it was pretty negative."
It's hard to learn much about the issues when these are the main talking points of the campaign, Frye indicates. "It's very frustrating. It seems they're just not addressing the issues and that they'd rather just attack each other. ... When one person is slamming the other, that doesn't do too much for me."
"This is all you see on TV," adds Bob Dimambro of Beverly. When the negative campaign ads come on, he nods, "I change the channel. You can only listen to so much. It's like they're trying to drill it into your head."
The drilling often hits pay dirt, Dimambro concedes, in the subconscious. Whether true or not, a negative message can subtly lower the esteem felt for this or that competitor. And it's all the more maddening when, as in the U.S. Senate race between Scott Brown and Elizabeth Warren, he likes both candidates.
In some cases the ads, if you can trust them — a very big if — provide useful information, Dimambro believes. And that's true even when you wish you hadn't heard it.
Danvers resident Mickey Boltas makes that point even clearer. "Scott Brown," he says. "A great guy. I like him. But he leans toward the wealthier people."
That Brown favors "millionaires and billionaires" over the middle class has been the thrust of Warren's campaign. Brown, meanwhile, has attacked Warren's claims of Cherokee heritage, suggesting she got an unfair advantage from it.
Boltas, who favored Warren to start with, isn't bothered by her campaign material.
On the other hand, he doesn't think negative ads are always so helpful. He sees one or gets a mailing, and "I kind of shake my head. They're sometimes confusing." Such appeals from both sides can be filled with quotes taken out of context, exaggerations and outright falsehoods.
The only thing Boltas likes less are appeals for money, donations perhaps aimed at producing more negative ads. "That turns me off a bit," he says. "I don't send money."
Arnold Barclay, also of Danvers, defies the conventional wisdom that negative campaigning works. "I let it go in one ear and out the other," he says.
Political professionals can say it works, but he shakes his head. "They're lying." Rather he sees an effort to gin up controversy and get people running to the media. "The news media is a business operating to make a profit," he said.
Further, Barclay denies that there's anything like useful information in these efforts. Mainly it is unreliable.
A retiree, Barclay casts a jaundiced eye on the whole process. "Politics is a dirty business," he says. "Always will be, and always has been going back to George Washington."