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Posted by on Feb 23, 2008 in Politics | 3 comments

Is Negative Campaigning Losing Its Positive Punch? (UPDATED)


It’s a given that when things get tough in a campaign, or when a candidate needs to drive up a popular opponent’s “negatives” that he or she will be advised to “go negative.” But has Campaign 2008 underscored negative campaigning’s risks and limits?

McClatchy Newspaper’s David Lightman thinks so and details some of the reasons why negative campaigning this season ain’t what it’s cracked up to be:

Hillary Clinton apparently thought that she had a killer sound bite during Thursday’s debate when she ripped Barack Obama as a promoter of “change your can Xerox.”

Instead, the audience booed, critics winced and once again the New York senator’s attempt to demonize her rival fell flat, another illustration of how 2008, at least so far, is the year that negative campaigning just doesn’t work as it once did.

“It looks like people are just burned out on that stuff,” said Peter W. Schramm, the executive director of the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs in Ohio.

In state after state, voters said they moved from Clinton to Obama — or, on the Republican side, from Mitt Romney to John McCain or Mike Huckabee — partly because they were tired of what seemed like politics as usual.

“What Hillary Clinton says just seems like dirty politics. Obama offers a very positive message,” said Roshay Malone, a Milwaukee child-care business owner.

“Clinton’s just too polarizing. Obama is able to inject some enthusiasm into the process,” added Bryan Hale, a land surveyor from Smithsburg, Md.

Analysts warn that the campaign still could turn on negatives, should a major scandal erupt. And the rules are likely to change in the general election, which will pit candidates at largely opposite ideological poles against each other.

Lightman then lists five reasons why “going negative isn’t a positive development for campaigns that try it. Go to the original link to read his detailed analysis but here are the five reasons why negative campaigning may not work and can even backfire:

(1) “Voters are excited about the candidates.”

(2) “Information overload. People seeking political news have more sources — updated more often — than ever, so most stories are old within hours.”

(3) “A higher tolerance for misbehavior. President Bush won’t talk about personal problems he confronted before he turned 40. McCain has talked about his years as a rowdy and often-reckless young man, and Obama detailed his drug use in his memoirs.

Then there’s Bill Clinton, whose sexual affair with a White House intern in the Oval Office dominated the news for more than a year in the late 1990s.

So when Romney questions McCain’s tax-cut votes or Clinton hurls a plagiarism charge at Obama, the public often shrugs.”

(4) “Negative campaigning went too far.”

(5) “The charges don’t fit. If you’re going to make someone monstrous, make sure that he or she looks the part.”

So what meaning can be drawn from Lightman’s piece? A few things:

–Just as products become old and the public becomes bored, and just as old TV shows grow stale and lose their audiences, much of the negative campaigning now done still resembles the negative campaigning of the 19th and 20th centuries. Some of the delivery technology has changed. But as Lightman notes, the audience now has grown up in a media and political cultures so it’s deadened to some of the negative campaign, wise to how they are being manipulated and possibly resentful. More subtle way of delivering charges may be necessary.

–He doesn’t mention the talk radio culture which has not just turned politics into a verbal political wrestling sport (your tag team guys against the other tag team guys so overlook the fouls committed by your guys, and scream about the fouls committed by the others..) but represents broadcasters who get huge salaries to demonize the other side and accentuate national divisions. The upside is that daily doses of left and right broadcasters doing what is the equivalent of daily negative campaigning (Republicans are evil; Democrats are evil) via the airwaves has created a ho-hum attitude among many voters to blatantly and transparently negative political campaign attacks.

–Negative campaigning STILL WORKS in the sense that it can rip down a candidate’s image several notches. If you’re sprayed by a skunk you can use tomato juice to remove the smell but may still smell of skunk and/or tomato juice. For instance, read this post on The Huffington Post.

So negative campaigning — the formal kind, and the informal kind you can pick up on left/right talk radio any day — will likely play a BIG role after the two parties have their conventions, but he/she who uses it could face some risks.

The means politicos and their consultants will have to find new ways to change negative campaigning, new ways to state it, deliver it and spread it directly through surrogates and package it in entertaining versus shrill formats, as politics moves further into the new-technology-marked 21st century.

And when it comes to finding new ways to alter negative campaigning so it still works, that is change you can count on…

Going Negative
Negative Campaigning
Negative Campaigning: Advice for Attacker and Attackee
Do negative campaign ads work?
The Year Of Playing Dirtier (from 2006)
The consequences of negative campaigning
Enough polarized, partisan paralysis
Young voters could be deterred by negative campaign
Negative campaigning long a hallmark of American politics

Cartoon by Daryl Cagle,

UPDATE: Perhaps someone could send the Democratic candidates a copy of this post:

Democratic presidential contender Hillary Clinton lashed out at rival Barack Obama today for using a strategy out of “Karl Rove’s playbook” by making grandiose speeches of hope while sending Ohioans what she called “false and discredited mailings” on health care and trade policy.

“Shame on you Barack Obama,” Clinton told reporters after delivering a speech at Cincinnati Technical and Community College in which she reminded voters that in 2000, an untested George W. Bush called for change–just as Obama is now–and “the American people got shafted.”

Obama’s campaign quickly responded, noting that Clinton’s top spokesman, Howard Wolfson, once called one Democrat comparing another Democrat to George Bush as “the worst kind of tactical political maneuvering.”

Clinton, facing increased pressure to do well in Ohio and Texas, two major March 4 primary states, to continue her campaign against the front-running Obama, sought to raise in voters minds an image of a Democratic contender using Republican tactics to win.

Clinton questioned whether he was trying to undermine core Democratic principles by attacking her plans to expand health care and through a mailing on the North American Free Trade Agreement.

“Let’s have a real campaign. Enough of the speeches and the big rallies and then using tactics that are right out of Karl Rove’s playbook. This is wrong and every Democrat should be outraged because this is the kind of attack that not only undermines core Democratic values but gives aid and comfort to the very special interests and their allies in the Republican Party who are against doing what we want to for America,” she said.

“Time and time again, you hear one thing in speeches and then you see a campaign that has the worst kind of tactics, reminiscent of the same sort of Republican attack on Democrats,” Clinton asked.

Clinton said it was time Obama “ran a campaign consistent with your messages in public.”

“That’s what I expect from you,” she said. “Meet me in Ohio. Let’s have a debate about your tactics and your behavior in this campaign.”

So it sounds like she plans to go quite negative in the last debate turning it (if her statement is correct) into a debate about Obama’s tactics?

It’s also a signal that she hasn’t decided to “go quietly” as some have suggested.

This also pretty much negates a lot of the “talking heads” consensus on TV recently.

They argued that the enormous response to Clinton’s gracious and eloquent closing statement at the last debate (even with the mini-furor over whether it sounded like John Edwards or Bill Clinton) showed that the non-negative Hillary plays very well with voters, but the negative Hillary doesn’t. Apparently the Clinton campaign doesn’t think so.

Is this post outdated within hours?

We’ll find out on March 4…

Reaction from The Newshoggers:

Lets see…the Clinton campaign have tried to make hay out of accusations that Obama’s a terror-symp and that Obama’s a plagiarist – never mind that Mrs Clinton has also “plagiarised” and met former terrorists.

Not to condone Obama’s campaign if he’s using slanted quotes – but that’s a huge dose of “pot meets kettle” to swallow from the Clinton campaign.

Will they both please just cut it… out?!

UPDATE III: Obama’s campaign has responded:

“Everything in those mailers is completely accurate, unlike the discredited attacks from Hillary Clinton’s negative campaign that have been rejected in South Carolina, Wisconsin, and across America. We look forward to having a debate this Tuesday on the facts, and the facts are that Sen. Clinton was a supporter of NAFTA and the China permanent trade treaties until this campaign began. And she herself has said that under the Clinton health care plan, she would consider ‘going after the wages’ of Americans who don’t purchase health insurance, whether they can afford it or not.”

Read blog reaction HERE.

UPDATE IV: At readers’ request, here are some quotes from blogs giving you sampling of reaction to the latest negative campaigning (and who is really the one doing it):

She’s not running against Obama anymore — she’s essentially running against Bill. I mean, I really don’t know how you utter the “It took a Clinton to clean up after a Bush” line in one breath, and then in the next admit that he[screwed] up the job.

Liberal Values:

Hillary Clinton has frequently resorted to distorting Obama’s statements and positions during the campaign. Lawrence Lessig has an excellent video which summarizes how Clinton has run her campaign. Now she has the nerve to make an issue of an Obama mailer which, while it does appear to have faults, is a minor issue compared to what Clinton has been doing.

Gravatar Obama’s mailer could be faulted for the manner in which a third party quote appears to be from Clinton. I would prefer that even this degree of error not be present, but this is quite trivial compared to how Clinton has campaigned.


It is pretty depressing to see the degree to which the Clinton and Obama factions compete with one another to see who can trash NAFTA the most. But never mind that for now. What is important is that the Democrats’ internecine warfare is continuing apace and that there will likely not be a withdrawal from the campaign by the Clinton people unless Ohio and Texas turn out to be disasters for her. And even if they do turn out that way, those who saw a TV clip of Hillary Clinton heatedly denouncing Barack Obama might be forgiven for thinking that she might stay in no matter what to sabotage and undermine a candidate she plainly has contempt for and believes to be beneath her.

Pamela Leavey:

In the past few weeks since I announced here that I was endorsing Hillary Clinton, I spent a fair amount of time defending my reasoning. The bottom-line is that I see Hillary Clinton’s positions on the issues as the strongest positions on those issues and I feel she has the experience, the wisdom and the overall capability to push these issues through Congress. She’s proven her ability to work across party lines and get things done in the Senate.

I’ve watch in dis-belief and frustration as Clinton’s opponent Barack Obama has claimed to run a clean campaign while using right wing talking points about Clinton, time and time again. Today Hillary Clinton called Obama on the carpet for doing just that.

-Michael van der Galien:

Sadly for Obama, his entire message is that he’s different and that he would never use the same tactics Karl Rove, or other people like him, have used and continue to use. Yet more proof for me that he’s fake.

Viking Pundit:

So, unless Newsday completely mischaracterized Hillary’s remarks, they had the general vibe that she was in support of the trade pact put into law by her husband. But now she’s trying to hold on to Ohio, where NAFTA is anathema. (Hey, that’s good!)

A perfect summary of this controversy can be found HERE AT FIRST READ.

All of this taken together means: we’ll see now what kind of impact negative campaigning (whether you believe Clinton is doing it or Obama twisted her positions out of shape and is doing it) has now since this race is so close. Will it tilt the remaining states to Clinton? To Obama? Make no difference?

What is certain: the debate this week in Ohio won’t be low-key.

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