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posted: 10/4/2010 12:01 AM

Looking at the art behind those political ads, mailers

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  • Experts say there's art behind political ads and mailers this campaign season. While Democrats are pointing to Republican opponents' character flaws, Republicans are hammering Democrats' voting record and alleging ties to Illinois corruption.

    Experts say there's art behind political ads and mailers this campaign season. While Democrats are pointing to Republican opponents' character flaws, Republicans are hammering Democrats' voting record and alleging ties to Illinois corruption.
    Jeff Knox | Staff Photographer


There's the Americana theme, looking back to a simpler, more stable time. Others are downright creepy -- with ghoulish looking characters leaping off the page and screen. The most popular kind pack a below-the-belt punch.

We're not talking fall greeting cards here, but campaign advertisements.

With a month to go until the Nov. 2 election, suburbanites' mailboxes are being stuffed by the day with glossies selling the merits of some candidates and, more often, pointing out the drawbacks of others.

Democrats and Republicans, fighting for control of both the General Assembly and Congress, view the suburbs as a key battleground.

Both parties are utilizing distinct strategies to sway voters and drive them to the voting booths.

As Republicans, fighting to regain seats, are highlighting Democratic incumbents' voting records and ties to Illinois corruption, Democrats are attacking their challengers' character, using the rare positive ad to highlight recent legislative action on ethics and pension reform.

Bringing to mind champion boxer Muhammad Ali's famous 'float like a butterfly, sting like a bee,' mantra, each side must choose its punches carefully, says Matt Streb, a political science professor at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb who studies voter behavior.

"A fair amount of evidence indicates negative ads don't decrease turnout. If anything, they have an effective spark in turnout, until you cross that threshold. If it gets too negative, then that might push people over the edge."

Ads gleaned from mailboxes across Cook, Kane, McHenry, Lake and DuPage counties show where various candidates' campaign strategies are landing on that spectrum.

• A grim-looking 43rd state Rep. Keith Farnham, an Elgin Democrat, is pictured holding two large black trash bags, one labeled "Blagojevich" and the other "politics as usual." Springfield, Farnham says, "needs more guys willing to take out the trash."

• Mark Walker, Democratic state representative in the 66th District, which includes parts of Mount Prospect, Arlington Heights and Elk Grove Village, recently unleashed a black, white and red mailer ripping Republican opponent David Harris' (who served as a lawmaker in the 1980s and 90s) voting record on child pornography and jail sentences for sexual predators. Harris "has a shameful voting record when it comes to stopping the sexual abuse and exploitation of children," it claims.

Harris fired back with a mailer calling Walker's "distortions" a product of Democratic Party Chairman Michael Madigan's "Democrat Machine." Harris, President George W. Bush's former point person on Iraq, is quoted as saying, "I was issued body armor for protection. I never thought I would need it at home."

• Randy Hultgren, Republican challenger in the 14th Congressional District, last week unveiled a new TV commercial suggesting Democratic incumbent Bill Foster votes the Democratic Party line 93 percent of the time. "Look what they've done. A failed stimulus, a trillion-dollar government takeover of health care, and what do we have to show for it? Fewer jobs."

Foster responded with an ad accusing Republican Hultgren's investment firm of being among those that ignited the housing crisis and then profiting from government bailouts.

• The Illinois GOP last week launched a new site, "Madiganville" a take on Jimmy Buffett's infamous "Margaritaville" aimed at "tracking the negative impact of House Speaker Michael Madigan." Cook County Democratic Chair Joe Berrios, Senate Leader John Cullerton and Gov. Pat Quinn all running for office this fall are portrayed as marionettes controlled by the longtime leader.

• Michelle Mussman, Democratic challenger in the Northwest suburban 56th state House district, recently sent out mailers portraying Republican opponent Ryan Higgins as "Ryan: Illinois politician" a sort of Ken doll, who is "right out of the box."

Higgins, in turn, released a black and white photo collage of Mussman alongside rather unflattering pictures of Madigan and Quinn. "The Springfield politicians who made the mess are endorsing one candidate for state Representative," it reads.

While on the federal level, Illinois GOP Chairman Pat Brady spoke of ads and mailers designed to attack Democrats' voting records on the stimulus bill and health care reform, on the state level, "we've seen a gradual but consistent shift in the polls where it looks like the Illinois House is in play."

If Illinois House Republicans keep their current number of seats 48 and gain 12 more, they will take the majority.

"The reality is, (House Speaker) Mike Madigan is the most powerful guy downstate," Brady, of St. Charles, said. "The message for our state candidates is, A vote for Democratic state representative is a vote for Mike Madigan."

Steve Brown, spokesman for Madigan and Illinois Democratic Party, which Madigan chairs, said "the general strategy is to tell the story of Democrats' record. Democrats have been behind most of the major accomplishments. People who are criticizing are sitting on their hands. Where applicable, you go back and examine the track record of the people who want to come in and replace (Democrats)."

Democrats plan to counter the negative attacks by arguing to voters that Madigan is a reformer who started the process of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich's impeachment, as well as pension reform.

Yet Brown concedes that negative ads are what grab voters' attention.

"I can go out to talk about all the positive things I did, but it's not until I call my opponent a bum that people start to pay attention," he said. "The only way you can ignore it is if you think the opponent's message isn't very powerful. Or if they don't have the resources to communicate."

A 2002 study by University of Wisconsin-Madison Professor Ken Goldstein and University of Virginia Professor Paul Freedman found exposure to negative ads, whether contrast ads or "pure negative spots," actually stimulates voter turnout.

"It does so, we find, without regard to partisanship, information or attention to the campaign," the professors wrote.

Campaigns generally start off with biographical mailers, pointing out the merits of various candidates, NIU's Streb said.

Then ads quickly turn negative and stay that way. They have to, Streb said.

After all, underestimating the weight of an opponent's attacks has proved costly in recent political history.

In 1988, Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis underestimated the fallout from the infamous Willie Horton ad, portraying Dukakis as being soft on crime.

In 2004, Democrat John Kerry's presidential campaign was irreparably damaged by a television ad by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, which sought to undermine his military record.

"You have to respond. You have to counter. Any charge has to be refuted," Streb said. "If you don't, people will assume whatever it is to be true.

At the same time, DePaul University Professor Bruce Newman points out, mudslinging has a boomerang effect. "If it's done too harshly, it does come back to haunt," he said. "How they sling the mud, how they respond, that's the art."

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