If the 2006 midterm elections go as expected, the campaigns may end up being some of the ugliest on record. Already we have seen attempts to link candidates to disgraced lobbyists, pedophile teachers, Washington influence peddlers, and illegal immigrants — and that was just during this month’s special election in California’s 50th congressional district.
With villains like Jack Abramoff and William Jefferson to symbolize the culture of corruption, and emotionally charged debates on immigration, Iraq, and same-sex marriage on the agenda, the negative-campaign-commercial scripts practically write themselves. As the election-year mudslinging intensifies, editorialists will be quick to bemoan political incivility while the more censorial among them repeat appeals for campaign-finance reform.
But political journalist David Mark won’t be one of the complainers. The author of Going Dirty: The Art of Negative Campaigning contends that attacks on political opponents are nothing new and campaign negativity has its virtues. In the age of the Internet, new media outlets exist to ensure that no charge goes unanswered.
“There’s nothing inherently wrong with negative ads,” says Mark, a former editor-in-chief of Campaigns & Elections magazine. “They are an important part of an adversarial political culture.” And if campaigns seem more negative today, perhaps that’s because the rough parity between Republicans and Democrats has made our political culture even more adversarial.
The sophistication of modern campaigns helps candidates go negative on issues that motivate a narrow audience — based on television-viewing preferences, automobile purchases and what magazines they read — as well as those with a wider appeal. They can also send different messages to different voters.
One of the more controversial recent examples: Georgia Republican Saxby Chambliss’s “Osama bin Laden/Saddam Hussein” ads during the 2002 race against then Democratic Sen. Max Cleland. Cleland supporters were outraged. To them, the commercials insinuated some kind of link between the triple-amputee Vietnam veteran’s policies and America’s enemies. Chambliss backers countered that the ads simply reminded Georgians of Cleland’s votes and what was at stake. On Election Day, Chambliss beat Cleland.
That’s not to say that earlier election campaigns were pristine. In 1884, Republicans dubiously accused Democratic presidential nominee Grover Cleveland of fathering and abandoning an illegitimate child. Their jibe was as pithy as anything Lee Atwater ever came up with: “Ma, ma, where’s my pa?” So was the Democrats’ rejoinder when Cleveland won: “Gone to the White House, ha, ha, ha.”
Until the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960, anti-Catholicism was a potent political force. The first Republican presidential nominee, John Fremont, had to deny Democratic charges he was a closeted Catholic in 1856. The Republican party soon took up this banner as well, decrying the Democrats as the party of “rum, Romanism, and rebellion.” Al Smith was attacked as an agent of the Vatican when he was the Democratic nominee in 1928.
Going Dirty painstakingly explores this long history of negative campaigning, recounting both familiar episodes (Willie Horton, anyone?) and those readers may have forgotten. The recurring theme is that well-timed, adroitly executed attacks are often effective; sloppy tactics by campaigns that misunderstand the electorate tend to elicit backlashes.
Jesse Helms was a master of effective negative campaigning. In fact, despite his traditionalist reputation, it was an area where he was often on the cutting edge. From his “Vote for Jesse; He’s One of Us” billboards in 1972 race to the notorious “white hands” anti-affirmative-action ad in 1990, Helms’s tactics have long been criticized. Yet no one can deny their results. Helms won five terms in the U.S. Senate, despite facing a competitive Democratic challenger each time.
Other leading conservatives were victims of negative ads. Mark opens his third chapter by recounting Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 “Daisy Girl” ad, which implied that Republican nominee Barry Goldwater would start a nuclear war if elected president. Two years later, Democratic California Gov. Pat Brown’s ads attacking Ronald Reagan — “Vote for a real governor, not an acting one” — fell flat.
Negative ads are most effective when they reinforce the electorate’s preconceptions about a candidate. Long before George H.W. Bush’s 1988 team started taking swings, many voters already suspected Michael Dukakis was a liberal with weak stances on crime and national defense. The Bush campaign made sure to reaffirm to Dukakis’s squishy image.
Similarly, Goldwater had already acquired a reputation for hawkish foreign-policy views and extremism — even if only in the defense of liberty. So it wasn’t difficult for the Johnson campaign, whose “Daisy Girl” ad had an impact despite running only once, to capitalize on the Arizonan’s image problems.
If you are expecting campaign-finance-reform to curtail the negativity in politics, think again. “The main effect of McCain-Feingold was to drive money from political parties to unregulated groups who were willing to say anything,” Mark says. Consider the 2004 presidential race, when the Swift Vets for Truth made charges against John Kerry that the Bush campaign wouldn’t have touched. Attempts to crack down on 527s will probably just divert political contributions to other unforeseen endeavors.
According to Mark, the best solution is to let as many attacks and counterattacks come out as possible and let the voters decide which are over the top and which convey useful information. “Negative campaigning can be an art,” he says. “But if you just go out and sling mud, you could end up hurting your own campaign.”
Mark doesn’t argue that people who are tired of watching negative ads can read his book instead. But if he did, it wouldn’t be such a bad idea.
–W. James Antle III is a senior writer for The American Conservative.
(Rowan & Littlefield, 267 pp., $24.95)