The Google Ngram tool, which measures and displays keywords in publications going back to 1800, shows a dramatic "hockey stick" upswing in the term "negative political advertising" after 1988. It also shows the steady rise of the phrase "the economy" in the national dialogue. Social issues and foreign policy have faded, in relative terms.
The issue-oriented negative ads might be even more effective at swaying voters than obvious personal attacks, suggested one study by two Rutgers professors and one from George Washington, "The Effects of Negative Campaigning, A Meta-Analytic Reassessment." They saw significant potential for the practice to undermine public sentiment.
"When that happens, people spend less, they don't hire, they don't buy homes," says Vernon.
The focus on business issues likely reflects the fact that many of the Super PAC contributors are wealthy and tend to be most interested in issues affecting their financial standing. Supreme Court rulings in 1976 and 2010 affirmed a free-speech right to spend one's money on political campaigns without limit, freeing wealthy contributors and candidates of key post-Watergate campaign reforms. Many politicians began shunning matching funds to give them more fund-raising freedom.
What investors are doing. "A lot of people are just incredibly confused about the economy, and they are like deer caught in the headlights," says Vernon. "The campaign promises and attacks are not helping. There is always uncertainty about elections, but it is really magnified this time. The leadership, both Democrat and Republican, acts like they are in kindergarten when it comes to getting things done. They prefer to do things that are right for the party, not for the country," citing the near shut-down of the federal government over the disagreement on extending the debt ceiling.
Still, the market responds to influences well beyond the scope of any election, and there's no doubt it's been surprisingly strong in the August through early September period with the S&P returning to prerecession highs. But economic indicators, like the latest ugly jobs report, are still weak. "It's hard to get really excited about the market when all that really gets it going is the chance for easier Fed policy," says Vernon.
He is advising his own clients "to stay long, but stay hedged." He advises a balanced portfolio and a long-term view. Studies in the past have shown that the market does worst during the first two years of a presidential term, and tends to do better the second two years.
While stocks have performed poorly in recent pre-November periods, bonds have been generally stronger, gaining in price and offering steady yield.
"From now to the election, bonds will be a fairly good place to be," Vernon says. "People do not want to invest in riskier things when there is a high level of uncertainty. And there is a lot of that out there now."