NEW YORK -- Early in the campaign, Gov. Mario Cuomo's managers spent almost $2 million running positive television commercials designed to remind voters of the Democratic incumbent's record.
The result was a blip up in his standing in the opinion polls -- "a couple of points," one strategist recalled -- that lasted only a few days before negative commercials being run by Republican George Pataki began to take their usual toll.
The inference drawn by the Cuomo campaign was, unsurprisingly, that negatives work better than positives. It is a lesson being learned once again by campaigns of both parties all over the country this year.
Voters may complain, as many do, about the harsh tone and lack of content in American politics. But those who run the campaigns have learned that the way to "move the numbers" is to go negative against the opposition.
It has always been axiomatic that negative commercials are most effective when they contain at least a germ of truth, even if it is distorted or exaggerated. Thus, for example, the Cuomo campaign's advertising in which Pataki is depicted as a puppet of Sen. Alfonse D'Amato has been effective because there is no question that D'Amato did anoint Pataki to be the party nominee for governor.
Similarly, the Pataki campaign can score with a 30-second spot that assails Cuomo for raising taxes and spending too much. The Democratic governor may argue with some validity that the commercial distorts his overall record on taxes, but the fact remains that he is one of those Democrats who still believe in activist government spending to deal with social problems.
But negative spots can work even if outlandish so long as they are not so unfair that they evoke a backlash.
One factor obviously is the sour attitude of the electorate toward politicians. Voters start out thinking the worst, so negative commercials serve only to reinforce an impression already well-established.
More importantly, voters seem to be paying so little attention to what is going on in politics that they are susceptible to anything that passes for "information" on their television screens, however bizarre it might be.
A recent Times-Mirror opinion survey found just how little information of their own voters bring to the campaign. Asked to name President Clinton's major accomplishments since he has been in the White House, half of those questioned could not come up with any answer at all.
The plurality answer -- 18 percent -- was the health care reform plan. And that plan, of course, was a failure rather than an accomplishment. Fewer than one voter in 10 credited the president with promulgating a budget deficit reduction plan that by most informed reckonings has been his signal success.
In short, voters are paying so little attention that they are easy targets for a sales job. Even many of those who claim to pay attention to campaigns believe they have learned enough if they take the trouble to watch a single televised debate between the candidates.
Most often, however, the perceptions of candidates fostered by debates are founded not on the entire confrontation of 60 or 90 minutes but on the small bites that are featured on television news accounts of the debates. The result is that candidates can gain extraordinary advantage from a single successful thrust -- "You're no Jack Kennedy, Senator" -- and can suffer disproportionate harm from a single gaffe.
The importance of these potentially defining events is so great that political handicappers are reluctant to judge many campaigns until they have been held. In Massachusetts right now, for example, polls show Sen. Edward M. Kennedy leading Republican challenger Mitt Romney by 7 to 10 percentage points. But no one is likely to bet the farm on Kennedy until they see what happens in debates next week or until they see what commercials each campaign still holds in its reserve arsenal for the last two weeks of the campaign.
There are, of course, occasions when the news media coverage -- including that of newspapers as well as television -- becomes so revealing of facts about a candidate that public opinion changes. That seems to be happening in the case of Michael Huffington, the megabucks freshman congressman now losing a little ground in his challenge to Sen. Dianne Feinstein in California.
But it should not be forgotten that Huffington pulled himself even with Feinstein in the first place almost entirely by using negative commercials. They work.