A downanddirty look at negative campaigning

Do democracy and mudslinging go together like ice cream and apple pie?

this spring in California, a candidate for a legislative seat attacked his Republican-primary opponent for having had a heart transplant. “Tom Berryhill doesn’t have the heart for State Assembly,” read a flier put out by Bill Conrad. “Can you imagine the costs to taxpayers for a Special Election when poor health renders him unable to fulfill the duties of office?” Suggesting that Berryhill’s new ticker would hit constituents in their pocketbooks was an inspired touch (especially when Conrad asked voters to “imagine” the cost of a special election instead of just telling them how much it would be), but Conrad still lost the June 6 primary by more than two to one. It was an example of how the most outrageous examples of mudslinging, like the most frivolous lawsuits, are rarely successful in the end.

But negative campaigning, if done with more skill, can be quite successful. No one who lived through the 1988 presidential campaign can forget Willie Horton, the African-American convicted murderer who committed rape while on furlough from a Massachusetts prison. The Horton case was mentioned in a pair of ads attacking Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis (who had supported the furlough program as Bay State governor), and pretty much everyone agrees that it helped to kill Dukakis’s candidacy. Grant Barrett’s Hatchet Jobs and Hardball: The Oxford Dictionary of Political Slang even has an entry for “Willie Hortonize,” or “to invoke racial prejudice for political purposes” (although a white Horton, if sufficiently menacing looking, might have made the “soft on crime” point just as well).

Equally memorable, in its own way, was the 1996 campaign in the Bay State’s 3rd Congressional District, in which Democratic challenger Jim McGovern used the unpopularity here of Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich to take down incumbent Peter Blute. “If you wouldn’t vote for Newt, why would you ever vote for Blute?”, one commercial asked. Is it mudslinging to poke fun at someone’s name? The Ohio congresswoman dubbed “Mean Jean” Schmidt might have an opinion on that.

Two new books tackle the question of what constitutes negative campaigning, though neither one really disapproves of the practice. Kerwin Swint, a political science professor at Georgia’s Kennesaw State University, takes a greatest-hits approach in Mudslingers: The Top 25 Negative Political Campaigns of All Time. The “winner,” according to Swint, was segregationist George Wallace’s retaking of the Alabama governor’s office from a moderate white Democrat in 1970. (One TV ad had this narration: “Suppose your wife is driving home at 11 o’clock at night. She is stopped by a highway patrolman. He turns out to be black. Think about it. Elect George C. Wallace.”) But Massachusetts figures are prominent in three of the top 25, namely the presidential elections of 1828 (Andrew Jackson vs. John Quincy Adams), 1988 (George H.W. Bush vs. Michael Dukakis), and 2004 (George W. Bush vs. John Kerry).

If Swint seems to take guilty pleasure in politicians taking the low road, John Geer’s In Defense of Negativity: Attack Ads in Presidential Campaigns finds nothing to feel guilty about. “The practice of democracy requires negativity by candidates,” writes the Vanderbilt University political scientist. The gist of his argument is that most positive ads have nothing but empty rhetoric, but “when politicians present negative messages, they need to provide evidence to make them credible.” He quotes political consultant Mike Murphy (whose past clients include Gov. Mitt Romney) as saying, “We have a joke in the business: The only difference between negative and positive ads is that negative ads have facts in them.”

‘The difference is… negative ads have facts.’

Unfortunately, Geer seems satisfied if an attack ad contains anything that can be called a fact, regardless of how it’s used. For example, he defends the Bush campaign’s first attack ad against Dukakis in 1988, in which a narrator claimed that the “dirtiest harbor in America” was right here in Boston. “The harbor was polluted,” Geer writes, “and it remained so under Dukakis’s tenure as governor. Incumbents take credit for all successes, whether or not they deserve it. The flip side is that incumbents get blamed for problems outside of their control.” Another fact, that the harbor was in the process of getting cleaned up under Dukakis, was apparently irrelevant.

Then there’s the “windsurfer” ad, from the second Bush-vs.-Bay Stater battle, in which footage of Kerry tacking in different directions was used to show how he changed political positions in his career. “Such information is not only important to voters, it is something that can be documented and thus viewed as credible,” Geer writes. But earlier in the same paragraph, he writes, “Any candidate who manages to win the [presidential] nomination is very likely to have a long enough resume to find many inconsistencies.” If this is true, isn’t it misleading to present evidence of “flip-flopping” as a character defect rather than as a natural result of a lengthy political career?

neither swint nor geer gives a concise breakdown of the different types of nasty campaigning and their varying degrees of success. From the examples in their books, however, it’s possible to create a taxonomy of negativity.

Name-calling. This is the simplest form of negative campaigning, and it seems to especially irritate middle-of-the-road columnists like David Broder, who is quoted by Geer as calling personal attacks a means “of avoidance of serious issues.” The example Swint cites as “legend” is a speech in Florida’s 1950 Democratic primary campaign for the US Senate, in which the winning candidate accused the other of being “a shameless extrovert” with a brother who was a “known homo sapiens” and a sister who was “a thespian.” Alas, other sources suggest that the story was a hoax.

A more convincing example comes from 1884, when “roving groups of Democrats” crashed rallies for the Republican presidential nominee, yelling “Blaine! Blaine! James G. Blaine! The continental liar from the state of Maine!” There are modern equivalents of this sort of behavior (Bush rallies from 2004 in which supporters mocked Kerry by clapping together “flip-flop” sandals, or any campaign that sends out a man in a chicken suit to stalk an opponent who’s reluctant to debate), but for the most part schoolyard taunts carry an aroma of desperation, leading campaigns to avoid them.

Swint writes that US Sen. Alfonse D’Amato wounded his 1998 campaign for reelection in New York by calling his opponent a “putzhead” (a vulgar Yiddish term) in a meeting with Jewish leaders, and he doesn’t seem to think Kerry did himself any favors by describing the Bush administration, to a bunch of reporters, as “the most lying group I’ve ever seen.” (The Bush campaign wisely kept the story alive by demanding an apology.)

Perhaps name-calling, like other attacks, only works when they carry some substance, as Geer suggests. Case in point: the 1988 US Senate campaign in Florida, in which Connie Mack beat Buddy McKay. Mack gained traction from TV ads that featured a highly selective rundown of his opponent’s stands on certain issues and ended with the slogan, “Hey Buddy, you’re a liberal!”

John Kerry (right) pounced on Ray Shamie (left) for his
association with the John Birch Society.
AP Wide World/Paul Benoit

Character assassination. More specific than name-calling, the business of indicting an opponent for past behavior—even exemplary behavior twisted to look bad—goes back to the beginning of the republic. According to Swint, the “swift-boating” of John Kerry had a precedent in 1828 (his choice for the dirtiest presidential campaign ever), when allies of incumbent John Quincy Adams went after opponent Andrew Jackson’s chief claim to fame, his heroism in the War of 1812 and subsequent battles with American Indians. “Their most outrageous attack on Old Hickory,” writes Swint, referring to Jackson’s nickname, “involved claims that he murdered his own soldiers during the 1813 Creek Indian war.” In fact, the soldiers in question were executed for plotting a mutiny.

The ‘swift-boating’ of Kerry had a precedent in 1828.

This slander didn’t stop Jackson, but far-fetched accusations against Vietnam War veteran Kerry (e.g., that he had wounded himself to get a Purple Heart, and that he had killed a fleeing Vietnamese civilian by shooting him in the back) may have harmed his campaign. One difference may have been that, after Vietnam and Watergate, voters were more conspiracy-minded; another was that such rumors were reported, if not verified, by “objective” media as opposed to the partisan newspapers that dominated campaign coverage in the 19th century. (Lest you think that only Democrats are the victims of such smears, Swint points out that the Republican candidate for US Senate from New Jersey in 1988 was hit with an ad from his Democratic opponent accusing him of having “lied” about injuries he sustained in the Vietnam War.)

As with name-calling, however, this technique runs the risk of backfiring. Swint provides two examples, both from Texas. In the 1994 Democratic primary for governor, one candidate pounced on treasurer Ann Richards’s refusal to answer questions about drug use, running a TV ad that asked, “Did she use marijuana, or something worse, like cocaine?” And in the 1978 US Senate race, incumbent John Tower was besieged by rumors that he “liked to chase women and whisky,” as Swint puts it. Both Richards and Tower won their respective races, with voters apparently less than enchanted by the hardball tactics of their opponents.

Guilt by association. This is another timeworn technique, though, again, not without its risks. In the 1884 presidential race, a Presbyterian minister who supported the Republican candidate slammed the opposition as the party of “rum, Romanism, and rebellion” (i.e., alcohol, Catholi-cism, and the Confederacy). Swint surmises that the comment cost the Republicans the state of New York, with its growing Catholic population, and thus the election. More effective might have been the quip, popular in 1972, that the Democrats were the party of “acid, amnesty, and abortion” (i.e., drug users, draft dodgers, and participants in the “sexual revolution”). Proving that political success has many fathers, the quote is now attributed, by different sources, to: Richard Nixon’s reelection campaign; Democrats opposed to party nominee George McGovern; and gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson.

Here in Massachusetts, John Kerry won his first election as US senator, in part, by linking Republican opponent Ray Shamie to the right-wing John Birch Society (businessman Shamie had distributed Birch material to some of his employees). But one of the more elegant uses of this technique came in the 2002 gubernatorial race, in which Republican Mitt Romney charged that if Shannon O’Brien were elected, she would become part of a tax-raising “Gang of Three,” joining the Democratic leaders of the state Senate and House of Representatives. Rather than going after any of the three too harshly, or impugning all members of the opposition party, Romney sounded rather like a suburban mom talking about troublesome children in her neighborhood: “They’re really not bad kids. It’s just when they get together….”

“Not One of Us.” A variant of the guilt-by-association ploy is the charge that an opponent just doesn’t understand the concerns of “ordinary people.” In many of the campaigns that Swint chronicles, that phrase might as well be “ordinary white people.” Jesse Helms was elected to the US Senate from North Carolina in 1972 after his incessant use of the slogan “He’s one of us.” He was reelected in 1984, defeating an African-American candidate, partly because of the “White Hands” TV spot, which focused on the hands of a white man as he opened and then angrily crumpled a rejection letter. “You needed that job, and you were the best qualified,” the announcer intoned. “But they had to give it to a minority because of a racial quota.”

These days, “not one of us” has come to mean a candidate with a high standard of living, someone who presumably has no clue about the effects of high taxes and low wages on typical voters. Take “Fancy Ford,” a Web site run by the Republican Party that ridicules Harold Ford, the leading Democratic candidate for the US Senate in Tennessee, not for being African-American, but for wearing Armani suits, vacationing in the Hamptons, and socializing with movie stars.

In Massachusetts, there’s a long history of class tension in political campaigns, perhaps best exemplified by James Michael Curley’s cashing in on Catholic resentment toward the Yankee ruling class in the early part of the 20th century. The most memorable TV spot of the 1978 gubernatorial election came from Democratic nominee Ed King, from working-class Winthrop; it included an aerial shot of the expansive home of Republican opponent Frank Hatch in upper-crust Beverly, and was widely credited with killing Hatch’s momentum in normally Democratic cities in the closing days of the campaign.

Cherry-picking. Though the most memorable negative ads of the 1988 presidential campaign came from the Republicans, Dukakis got in a few shots of his own, such as in this spot cited by Geer: “…in 1985 Bush personally cast the tie-breaking Senate vote to cut $20 billion in [Social Security] benefits…. He didn’t vote for you. Why should you vote for him?”

This seems to be Geer’s favorite type of attack ad, one fashioned around a documented fact, even if that fact is difficult for even well-informed voters to put into context. (What kind of Social Security benefits were cut, and who was affected? Were the benefits offset by increased spending in another program, or needed to close a deficit?) “Those who worry about the ill effects of attacks tend to think of voters as inattentive and easily manipulated,” Geer airily writes. Well, maybe not easily manipulated, but I, for one, will admit to being easily confused by them.

Having a voting record can be a sizable handicap.

It’s a little too easy to cherry-pick an opponent’s record. In a special congressional election in California this spring, the Democratic Party ran a TV ad slamming Republican candidate Brian Bilbray for “missing a vote to put a thousand new border patrol agents on our border.” According to FactCheck.org, run by the nonpartisan Annenberg Public Policy Center, the commercial left out the information that the legislation was introduced way back in 1999 and that Bilbray was present to vote yes on the final passage of the bill —a bill that was opposed by almost all Democrats in Congress and then vetoed by Democratic President Bill Clinton. But never mind.

Having a voting record can be a sizable handicap in running for higher office, which may be why lawmakers rarely make it to the White House, and why none of the candidates for governor in Massachusetts this year have served in the Legislature. But if questionable votes can’t be found, there are almost always ill-advised statements to use against an opponent. Swint notes that when the novelist Upton Sinclair ran for governor of California in 1934, quotes from his fictional characters were used against him.

Geer notes that one of Lyndon Johnson’s most effective ads in the 1964 presidential campaign quoted from a magazine essay his opponent, Barry Goldwater, had written the year before: “Sometimes I think this country would be better off if we could just saw off the eastern seaboard and let it float out to sea.” Geer finds Goldwater’s flippant statement to be fair game (“[it] was not something that reflected well on a presidential candidate”), and it’s hard to argue that Johnson was unfair in using it. Still, there’s something endearing about Goldwater’s comment—a lot of Americans have their own list of states they’d like to see disappear—and the political imperative to avoid a “gaffe” of candor like Goldwater’s is why it’s rarely worth reading any newspaper column with a candidate’s byline on it.

many people, including the candidate himself, have said that Dukakis lost the 1988 race because he didn’t “fight back,” but Geer reminds us that Dukakis ran plenty of attack ads against Bush. In fact, he was a pioneer in the “anti-attack” genre of political ad. In one spot, he complained (somewhat ungrammatically) about “George Bush’s negative TV ads, distorting my record, full of lies, and he knows it.” Trying to counter the Willie Horton ads, he appeared on another spot saying that “George Bush has taken a furlough from the truth.” Geer quotes a Democratic consultant as saying that attacks against Bush’s campaign tactics (as opposed to his political record) may have been “too subtle,” but it’s hard to think of a better way for Dukakis to have responded without destroying his image as a competence-over-ideology “good government” type.

Meet the Author

Both Swint and Geer suggest that there has been an evolution in negative campaigning, away from crude, personality-based attacks (sometimes based on sexual innuendos and often racially tinged) and toward specific attacks on a candidate’s record, and that the deconstruction of Dukakis was a watershed event in this process. In many ways, this is a welcome development. But neither author considers the implications of negative campaigning on the business of governing. No one who aspires to reelection (let alone election to a higher office) wants a “Willie Horton” on his or her record, and that fear may lead to short-sighted criminal-justice policies (e.g., making prisoners serve long full sentences but then releasing them without any kind of supervision). And sometimes it’s simply impossible to avoid a black mark on one’s record: At this writing, a county sheriff running for Congress in Indiana is being criticized because one of his many deputies mistakenly released an accused child molester from jail.

Mudslingers makes pre-1988 campaigns, with their crude insults, seem almost quaint, but I doubt that many voters would want to return to that style of politics—and it certainly didn’t work for the “heart attack” guy in California. For all its flaws, In Defense of Negativity is convincing on the point that it’s impossible, and not really desirable, to keep Willie Horton ads off the airwaves. The open question is whether there’s a way to respond to such ads so that elections are not decided on the basis of who comes up with the most sensationalist attacks. A book with the answer to that would find a ready market: every presidential aspirant in America.