Congresional 1 District Democrat and candidate George Cordova.
"Unfortunately, the rule is, nobody likes it but it works," said Fred Solop, director of Northern Arizona University's Social Research Laboratory that has been conducting voter surveys about the Congressional District One (CD1) race.
A month ago, the NAU poll showed Cordova neck-in-neck with Republican opponent Rick Renzi.
But in a new poll, conducted after the TV ads and mailers started attacking Cordova, Renzi has surged ahead to a 12-percent lead. Libertarian candidate Ed Porr has 3 percent of the likely voters, and 12 percent remain undecided. The poll has a 4.1-percent margin of error.
"Everyone says they're against negative advertising in politics, but the fact of the matter is – and this is unfortunate – it works," agreed William "Chip" Stearns, a media and politics professor at Prescott College.
It's not that the latest poll showed Democrats have switched their preference to Renzi or Porr, Solop said.
Rather, "Negative ads are having the effect of discouraging Democrats from coming out to vote," Solop said. Voters lose enthusiasm for the electoral system if their party's candidate is the one being attacked.
Previously undecided voters also are lining up behind Renzi, Solop said. While 23 percent were undecided a month ago, now 12 percent remain undecided.
It's easier for people to line up against someone or something than for it, Stearns said, especially when those people have less sophisticated judgment.
Negative advertising is especially effective during the last few weeks of the campaign, Stearns added. The Cordova ads ran about that time, as early voting is winding down in the Nov. 5 general election.
The number of registered Democrats has an edge in CD1. Of the district's 320,364 registered voters in the latest count, 44.8 percent were Democrats, 33.8 percent were Republicans, 0.4 percent were Libertarians and 21 percent were from other parties or unaffiliated.
But at the same time, it is true here and nationwide that Democrats are less likely to vote than Republicans in general, Solop said. Democrats also tend to be less affluent, and are more likely to be a racial minority.
Cordova noted that minorities and the less affluent also are less likely to participate in phone surveys, and Solop agreed.
"I don't think the poll is indicative of the district," Cordova said.
Negative advertising is nothing new, Stearns noted.
"Everyone acts as if negative advertising is something new and it's getting worse," Stearns said. "But deception and distraction always have been part of political campaigns. Negative advertising and politics have gone hand in hand since Jefferson. You just hope the public wises up to these things."
Stearns cited several examples of successful personal attacks in high-profile races of the past: Bush vs. Dukakis, LBJ vs. Goldwater.
When the stakes are high, national party committees get more involved. The CD1 race is one of the most important Congressional races in the country, because both candidates are relative unknowns and the Republicans are battling to keep their narrow majority in the House.
The National Republican Congressional Committee is generally sponsoring the personal attack ads against Cordova, although Renzi's office is repeating the attacks in press releases. Renzi is quick to note that federal law makes it is illegal for him to collaborate on the committee's ads.
"I don't see it until you see it," Renzi said. "It doesn't matter whether I like it or not."
Cordova doesn't believe that.
"It is unbelievable he would say that," Cordova replied. "It is a major coordinated effort." He also accused Renzi of relying on the ads and avoiding public debates, plus being involved in sending large envelopes of "dirt" about him to reporters.
"I really believe people are going to see past his negativeness and ugliness and turn him out," Cordova said. "I believe it's going to come back and hurt Mr. Renzi big time, because the voters still don't know where he stands."
Renzi said Cordova was the first to send out slurs, about Renzi being a carpetbagger. Again, Cordova disagreed.
"He was attacked by his own party throughout the primary about being a carpetbagger," Cordova said.
Cordova said he will respond to the negative ads only to defend himself, and plans to print ads that respond to each accusation about his business and financial background.