Global: Do negative campaigns help?

With less than a month to go before the U.S. presidential election, it looks as if the gloves are beginning to come off and both campaigns are trying to get low-down and personal. With accusations flying about the pasts of Democratic contender Barack Obama and Republican candidate John McCain, sparks could fly at Tuesday night's debate — the second of three times the presidential candidates will meet face-to-face.

Personal, character attacks began during the weekend, when Republican Vice Presidential nominee Sarah Palin accused Barack Obama of “palling around with terrorists.” She was referring to Obama’s alleged association with Bill Ayers, a founding member of the Weather Underground — not to be confused with the uber-chic '60s band the Velvet Underground. The Weather Underground, also known as the Weathermen were a left-wing terror group implicated in a series of bombings across the United States between 1970 and 1974, namely, the New York City police house, a toilet in the U.S. Senate Building, a woman’s restroom in the Pentagon, a San Francisco police station, a Marin County Courthouse and the Presidio Army base in San Francisco.

According to the Alaskan governor, both Obama and Ayers often attended the same social functions and once sat on the board of the Woods Fund of Chicago, an anti-poverty group. They also live within a few blocks of each other on Chicago’s north side. The Washington Post blog Fact Checker found that Ayers, who is now a distinguished professor of Education at the University of Illinois-Chicago, contributed $200 to Obama’s re-election fund to the Illinois State Senate in 2001. Ayers never served a prison sentence for his role in the Weathermen, but admitted in a memoir he didn’t regret setting the bombs.

The whole thing adds up to the Fact Checker calling the link between the two “tenuous.”

Next, it was Obama’s turn to rekindle some of John McCain’s past. Bloomberg reports that the Obama campaign has constructed a new website with videos reminding voters how McCain is a member of the Keating Five, a group of Senators accused of improperly intervening with federal regulators on behalf of their financial backer, Charles Keating, the owner of a failed Savings and Loan. When Keating’s Saving and Loan went belly up, more than 23,000 bondholders were drafauded and the U.S. government stepped in, becoming liable for $2 billion in loses. (Fact Checker hasn’t gotten around to these claims, but according to the Arizona Republic, McCain's help to Keating was in “poor judgment.”)

“I think it is safe to say this presidential campaign has thus far been cleaner than the last two, with only one truly nasty attack ad,” writes dubaiwalla, from Dubai, in his Livejournal page.

Look for that to change over the next month, as John McCain attempts to roll the dice one last time by questioning Barack Obama's character in a bid to cut into his comfortable lead. And if he does, expect to hear a lot more about his own past, and that of his running mate. My personal prediction is that the polls will close a bit, as McCain spends all the cash he has hoarded. But with the combination of a lead in cash, good poll numbers in every swing state (plus some traditionally Republican ones), and a strong ground presence, I am very optimistic about Obama's chances. The economic crisis should amount to a coffin nail.

From the Public Opinion weblog at the Thought Factory, run out of Australia, McCain’s fade in the opinion polls leave his camp with only one tactic left: personal attacks.

The Guardian reports that the economic crisis has led to a haemorrhaging of Republican support over the last two weeks. Polls and reports from Democratic and Republican campaign staff on the ground suggest that a seismic shift is taking place in the electoral map in favour of the Democrats. Obama is making inroads into states once regarded as safe Republican areas, while the number of states in which McCain is competitive is narrowing, mainly because of the Wall Street collapse.

I'm not so sure that it is that cut and dried. McCain can still win narrowly–like Bush did…So what then for McCain? A turn in tactics? To negative adverts? A smear campaign? To shift the campaign discussion away from substantive issues, such as the economy or health care? McCain needs to try and divert attention from the economy.

As Bloomberg points out that the character attacks — as they are now called — puts the Obama camp, and its message of hope, in a predicament. How can you try to preach change and be vindictive at the same time?

From a writer called CLARENCEGIRL, blogging in North Country Voices in Australia:

Both the Republicans and Democrats are naturally trying to control media spin in the 2008 US presidential election.

Cease and desist letters are flying back and forth between candidates and lobby groups (such as the National Rifle Association), as well as between media outlets and the Obama and McCain campaign machines.Legal action is apparently being regularly threatened over a broad area.

After a failed attempt to allegedly buy internet censorship, Obama has relied on a number of websites in his attempt to control this spin.
His Fight the Smears site asks for help in spreading the ‘truth’ about political rumours and falsehoods.

However, his supporters appear to be going a little overboard and are apparently attempting to censor what goes up on the Internet.

However, bloggers around the world are calling into question using attack campaigning at all. From a liberal perspective, but one with political experience, Duncan Riley from Australia argues that both John McCain and Sarah Palin deserved to win their debates: They spoke more in key points, used their grand narrative well, articulated the negatives of the other candidate and lectured on their fighting spirit while their opponents conversed less in sound bites and more often took a positive approach. “Everything I’ve learnt from years in politics,” Duncan confesses, “told me that McCain won the debate.”

I was wrong. Every poll showed that Obama won. It was a triumph of substance over style, of a positive message trumping a more negative one.

If we can, let’s get beyond the partisanship of the post and focus on the nuts and bolts of the argument. Why could Obama grow his lead after these head-to-head encounters? By becoming more aggressive and resorting to more personal attacks, are the Republicans fighting the previous war?

The electorate is changing.

At a time of economic crisis, and with wars on several fronts, the American people are looking past the politics of old, the politics of negative spin and sound bites, and want something more. It can be the only explanation for Obama and Biden winning both debates among swinging/ undecided voters in particular. Intelligence and a deep understanding of the issues are less of a crime in 2008.

There’s also the defeat of narrative + negativity over positives and intellect. Notice how McCain in the first debate referred to his experience in Vietnam, and how Palin said that only McCain knows how to fight and win. Being in a POW camp deserves respect, but it doesn’t give you a special ability to run the free world over your opponent. Notice Palin’s constant references to Alaska, and hockey moms, and her disabled child, having 5 children, running a small community etc etc…great narrative that may connect on some levels, but it’s no longer a vote winner over what you are capable of delivering and what your policies are.
Change starts from the ground up. If the polls continue, and Obama wins in a landslide (or something close to it), the people of the United States will join others in Australia and the United Kingdom in finally rejecting the negative politics that became the defining factor of all three in the late 90s and into the first decade of the 21st century. We’ll only know in November.

In somewhat of the same vein, Jeremiah Haber, from Jerusalem, who writes the Magnes Zionist blog takes New York Times columnist William Kristol to task for ensuring a McCain-Palin victory because “Obama and Biden are orthodox liberals”: They're for raising taxes, federally funding abortions, naming activist judges, and losing wars.

Uh, excuse me, but it seems to me that McCain and Palin have been shouting from the rooftops that Obama and Biden are “orthodox liberals,” and that the “tax-and-spend-wave-the-white-flag” charge has failed abysmally in this election. So why does Kristol think that this strategy will suddenly work? Because he simply can't believe that real Americans are liberals. He's right; they aren't. They aren't conservatives, either. Americans didn't elect George W. because they were conservative, and they won't elect Obama because they have turned liberal. The fact is that most people are not Kristol-style ideologues. Sure, there are a bunch of those on both sides, but you can't get elected only with them. Folks believe that the country is in a mess, and that the Republicans are mostly responsible. They are willing to give the other side the chance to do better. That's what this election is about.

1 comment

  • Tony Botha

    I think “negative” in US politics has taken on the connotation of “sleazy”. I think you can point out the negative’s in the policy of opposing candidates to demonstrate the pro’s and con’s of the other candidates platform. Whenever “negative” is used in a “sleazy” manner it demonstrates a lack of character or substance of the person using these tactics. If there is a genuine negative in the history of a candidate would this not have been a disqualication criteria long before this stage of the campaign. People react to a negative tone in a similar vane they tend to get in a negative mode. A candidates primary function is to place his supporters in a positive mode so that they respond. Their negative mode may be counteractive in the long run. I think that Obama’s campaign has generally created a positive response and therefore in the long run they have had this positive mood to carry them to the end.
    from South Africa

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