Going Dirty: The Art of Negative Campaigningby David Mark
Going Dirty is a history of negative campaigning in American politics and an examination of how candidates and political consultants have employed this often-controversial technique. The book includes case studies on notable races throughout the television era in which new negative campaign strategies were introduced, or existing tactics were refined and amplified upon. Strategies have included labeling opponents from non-traditional political backgrounds as dumb or lightweight, an approach that got upended when a veteran actor and rookie candidate named Ronald Reagan won the California governorship in 1966, setting him on a path to the White House. The negative tone of campaigns has also been ratcheted up dramatically since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001: Campaign commercials now routinely run pictures of international villains and suggest, sometimes overtly, at other times more subtly, that political opponents are less than resolute in prosecuting the war on terror. The book also outlines a series of races in which negative campaigning has backfired, because the charges were not credible or the candidate on the attack did not understand the political sentiments of the local electorate they were trying to persuade. The effect of newer technologies on negative campaigning is also examined, including blogs and Web video, in addition to tried and true methods like direct mail.
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The Art of Negative Campaigning
By DAVID MARK
ROWMAN & LITTLEFIELD PUBLISHERS, INC.
Copyright © 2006
All right reserved.
Eye of the Beholder: Defining
Since the 1984 presidential race was a snoozer that would result in Ronald
Reagan's 49-state landslide reelection victory, much of the political world
turned its gaze to North Carolina. There, a brawl of a Senate race had begun
more than a year and a half before Election Day; the incumbent senator, Republican
Jesse Helms, was locked in a bitter fight with Governor Jim Hunt, a
rising Democratic star.
Helms did not usually like to debate opponents, relying instead on television
advertisements that blanketed the Tar Heel State during election season.
But the famously conservative senator saw that he faced a formidable challenger
who indeed was threatening to end his 12-year career. So Helms engaged
in several head-on clashes with the governor, whom he had repeatedly
called a flip-flopper lacking core ideological convictions and a "limousine liberal"
in his television ads. During their second debate, in Wilmington, Hunt
challenged Helms to join him in prohibiting negative ads on television, so
they could focus more on what the candidates would do to improve the lives
of North Carolinians. Helms's response? "We haven't put on any negative advertising.
We just told thetruth about you. It's sort of like Harry Truman said
one time. He said the Republicans think I'm giving them hell. I'm not giving
them hell. I'm telling the truth on you."
Candidates routinely offer similar explanations to defend aggressive campaign
tactics, in races from president of the United States to county assessor.
Few, if any, of them openly admit to negative campaigning. To office-seekers,
criticizing an opponent's voting record is comparative advertising, while spotlighting
a rival's marital infidelity or woeful personal finances is perfectly appropriate
because it raises character issues for voters. What constitutes
negative campaigning is usually a matter of perspective; tactics that to one
voter seem misleading, mean-spirited, and immoral can impart to another
important and relevant information about how the candidate would perform
under the pressures of public office. Negative campaigning, like beauty, is in
the eye of the beholder.
Still, general outlines of what constitutes negative campaigning can be defined,
whether or not the candidates and their campaign staff members mentioned
in this book would agree with those descriptions. This book traces the
modern history and evolution of negative campaigning tactics, primarily
from the beginning of the television age in politics, in 1952, to the present; for
purposes of discussion, the term "negative campaigning" refers to the actions
a candidate takes to win an election by attacking an opponent, rather than
emphasizing his or her own positive attributes or policies.
First, I want to distinguish negative campaigning-charges and accusations
that, while often distorted, contain at least a kernel of truth-from dirty tricks
or cheating. Examples abound of campaign dirty tricks, most famously the
tactics of Richard M. Nixon's 1972 Committee to Reelect the President
(CREEP), which were exposed in the Watergate proceedings of 1973 to 1974.
Perhaps the most notorious dirty trick was a letter planted in a New Hampshire
newspaper alleging that a leading Democratic presidential candidate,
Senator Edmund Muskie of Maine, had approved a slur that referred to Americans
of French-Canadian descent as "Canucks." On a snowy New Hampshire
day, standing outside the offices of the newspaper, Muskie gave a rambling denial
in which tears seemed to drip from his eyes (some contend they were actually
melting snowflakes). His emotional conduct, replayed on television,
caused him to drop in the New Hampshire polls shortly before the presidential
primary. Senator George McGovern of South Dakota, considered a weaker
candidate by Nixon political strategists, eventually won the 1972 Democratic
nomination and lost the general election to the Republican president in a
In this book, I'll touch on a few cases of dirty tricks when they directly affected
the operations of a campaign. As detailed in chapter 11, "push polling"
(more accurately push calling) was used against Senator John McCain in the
2000 Republican presidential primaries when scurrilous smears against his
character were advanced over the telephone, along with false rumors in the
South Carolina Republican primary that the senator from Arizona had fathered
a black baby. (In reality, McCain and his wife had adopted a girl from
Bangladesh.) But because dirty tricks are not considered legitimate campaign
tactics by most political professionals, and are often illegal, I've largely excluded
WHY CANDIDATES MUST GO NEGATIVE
Yet even beyond dirty tricks, many people still recoil at legitimate negative political
ads on television, radio, the Internet, and in other forms. Negative campaigning
has become a catchall phrase that implies there is something
inherently wrong with criticizing an opponent. Negative campaigning is one
of the most bemoaned aspects of the American political system, particularly
by academics and journalists who say it diminishes the level of political discourse
and intensifies the divisions among voters.
These complaints emerge each election cycle, partly because political spots
are so different in content, style, and form than ads for commercial products.
Anyone peddling breakfast cereal needs to be careful about criticizing competitors
too overtly or else run the risk of turning off consumers so much that
they'll start their day with another form of breakfast food. Rarely do product
advertisements include hard-hitting direct comparisons to competitors. (And
when they do, the contrasts are usually mild and fleeting.)
The goal of political marketing is entirely different, whether in a Republican
versus Democrat match or a tough party primary. Unlike product campaigns,
political campaigns do not mind at all turning off some "consumers,"
the voters. In fact, political operatives often prefer to keep voter participation
down among those inclined to vote for the opposition. They are perfectly
happy to drive down turnout, as long as those who do show up vote for them.
And then there's the timing. The stakes of elections are higher than everyday
consumer purchases. Consumers do not have to live with the same cereal or
beer for the next few years, but they do have to live with the same president,
governor, or member of Congress.
Challengers in particular must, almost by definition, go negative on the
lawmaker they are trying to beat. Challengers must demonstrate flaws of the
policies put in place by the incumbent and show how they would do things
differently. Going negative on the opponent is the best way to draw clear differences
and run on the issues the challenger favors. There are exceptions to
that rule. During the 2004 presidential race, the majority of President George
W. Bush's ads against his Democratic rival, Senator John F. Kerry, were negative.
This was a marked departure from Bush's campaign in 2000 when his ads
were generally more positive, painting the then Texas governor as a "compassionate
CANDIDATES' COMPREHENSIVE PLANS FOR NEGATIVE CAMPAIGNING
The most familiar forms of negative campaigning are the hard-hitting television
ads that flood the airwaves each election cycle. These often feature grainy
black-and-white photos of the opposition, looking as if he or she just rolled
out of bed in the morning, tasted a sour pickle, or had a root canal about an
But television ads by themselves are often only one element in a comprehensive
negative campaign strategy. An effective approach revolves around
painting an unlikable portrait of the opposition through many different forums,
including speeches, candidate debates, press statements, and appearances
on talk shows. And, as will be demonstrated in chapter 12, direct mail
and more recent technological innovations such as blogs and Web video commercials
have become very important tools to use in criticizing opponents.
Often, negative campaigning means telling a damaging story about the opponent
over and over again. In 2000, Republicans said repeatedly that Vice
President Al Gore, the Democratic presidential nominee, was an exaggerator
who would say whatever it took to get elected. Four years later Senator Kerry
was portrayed as a flip-flopper lacking the resolve to prosecute the war on
terror. Democrats did not come up with equally compelling messages about
the potential perils of a Bush presidency, and the party's nominees lost both
Negative campaigning also means honing in on an opponent's gaffes, verbal
or physical. Senator Barry Goldwater's politically unconventional statements,
many of then joking or before friendly audiences, became fodder for
some of the hardest-hitting and funny television ads of his era. The 1964 presidential
race, in which President Lyndon Baines Johnson crushed Goldwater
61 percent to 39 percent in the popular vote and took 44 states in the Electoral
College, set the standard for using candidates' own words against them. As described
in detail in chapter 3, the Republican's words included suggestions
that the eastern seaboard be sawed off and that the nuclear bomb was merely
another tactical weapon.
Or consider Fred Heineman, a one-term Republican congressman from
North Carolina, who rode the national GOP tidal wave in 1994 to a narrow
victory over veteran Democratic Representative David E. Price. After losing by
a scant 1,215 votes, Price returned to teaching political science at Duke University,
but quickly geared up for a 1996 rematch against Heineman, a longtime
New York City police officer who moved to Raleigh to become the city's
During the 1996 campaign, Heineman told a reporter for The (Raleigh)
News & Observer that his congressional salary and police pensions (totaling
more than $180,000 annually), made him "middle class," a claim likely to be
disputed by many workers who toiled long and hard and earned considerably
less. Heineman's comments provided an opening for Price in his comeback
bid to label the incumbent as out of touch with regular folks. The campaign
aired an "Earth to Fred" ad, featuring a mock conversation between "Mission
Control" and the commercial's announcer, with visuals of planets, stars, and
space flights. The announcer said, "Heineman claims his $180,000-a-year income
makes him, quote, 'middle class.'" Mission Control then responded with
"Earth to Fred. Come in!" With the help of the humorous "Earth to Fred" television
ad, Price won back his old seat, 54 percent to 44 percent.
Heineman's defeat also illustrates the importance of humor in negative
campaigning. In fact, some of the most effective negative ads barely seem negative
at all; shrouded by humor or irreverence, the stinging message is delivered
in a less-than-harsh manner. The familiar "scorched earth" negative ads,
with a scolding voice-over, unflattering pictures of the opponent, and ominous
sound effects, have become less effective because viewers are cynical
about political ads already. So they just hit the remote. "Humor ... can be a
very effective way to make a point, and connect on an emotional level, which
... has more impact than sort of a tic-list of failures," said Jim Margolis, a
veteran Democratic ad maker, whose work has help elect many U.S. senators
GOP Senator Mitch McConnell (Ky.) helped set a standard for humorous,
effective political ads during his first Senate campaign in 1984 against two-term
Democratic incumbent Senator Walter D. Huddleston. McConnell's
campaign persistently criticized Huddleston's voting record and attendance at
roll-call votes. Most memorably, McConnell's campaign featured a television
ad in which bloodhounds tracked the absentee senator (played by an actor),
who fled down a city street before being driven up a tree. The bloodhounds
also followed the senator to the lawn on the east side of the U.S. Capitol. The
spot noted that while Huddleston was missing votes, he was giving speeches
for $50,000 a pop. In conclusion, the narrator of the ad said, "We can't find
Dee. Maybe we ought to let him make speeches and switch to Mitch for senator."
McConnell won by about 5,000 votes out of more than 1.2 million cast.
Tony Schwartz, creator of the 1964 "Daisy Girl" ad for Lyndon Baines Johnson,
produced one of the most biting-and memorable-ads of the 1968
presidential campaign. The commercial for Hubert Humphrey, the Democratic
presidential nominee, called into question the abilities and qualifications
of Republican vice presidential candidate Spiro T. Agnew. The spot
simply showed "Agnew for Vice President" on a television set, while an off-screen
viewer laughed hysterically. The tag line at the end was, "This would be
funny if it weren't so serious."
Campaigns can also go negative by playing the victim. Nancy Reagan
played the role to perfection in a commercial for her husband's successful
1980 presidential campaign. In a one-minute commercial, the wife of the former
California governor sat in a nondescript office and looked into the camera.
"I deeply, deeply resent and am offended by the attacks that President
Carter has made on my husband," she began. "The personal attacks that he has
made on my husband. His attempt to paint my husband as a man he is not.
He is not a warmonger, he is not a man who's going to throw the elderly out
on the street and cut off their Social Security. That's a terrible thing to do and
to say about anybody. That's campaigning on fear."
Without missing a beat, she then attacked Carter's record, while still seemingly
playing the aggrieved spouse, the victim of negative campaigning by her
husband's opponent. "There are many issues that are at stake in this campaign.
I would like Mr. Carter to explain to me why the inflation is as high as
it is, why unemployment is as high as it is. I would like to have him explain the
vacillating, weak foreign policy so that our friends overseas don't know what
we're going to do, whether we're going to stand up for them or whether we're
not going to stand up for them. And the issue of this campaign is his three-and-a-half
year record." A narrator then concluded with, "The time is now for
strong leadership." In the space of 60 seconds, Mrs. Reagan had offered a
strong defense of her husband and then got in the campaign's main line of attack
against the opponent.
Campaign attacks that don't seem harsh can come in other forms, such as
interspersing optimism about one's own candidate with troubling information
about the opponent. President Bill Clinton's 1996 reelection campaign
turned the tactic of "positive negative" ads into high art by trumpeting his
own accomplishments while at the same time linking the Republican nominee,
former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, with unpopular House Speaker
Newt Gingrich, a development examined in depth in chapter 8. The president's
campaign against Dole wasn't the meanest, shrillest, or hardest-hitting
White House race in memory. It wasn't particularly competitive either, because
Clinton romped to a solid, near-landslide level Electoral College victory.
Yet, like other contests mentioned in these pages, the race was instructive because
it amplified existing tactics in negative campaigning that later became
commonplace in campaigns, including going after opponents early, before
they have a chance to define themselves for voters.
Whatever the format, any winning effort needs to convince voters they
should vote for one candidate and against the other. It's that simple, said Chris
Lehane, spokesman for Al Gore's 2000 presidential campaign and leading
practitioner of comparative politics. The Harvard Law School graduate
learned his craft working in the Clinton White House during the mid-1990s
as part of a rapid response team created to deal with Whitewater and the
growing number of other investigations into the administration. He then
moved onto the campaign trail for Gore, scoring kudos from members of his
party and scorn from Republicans for his hard-charging ways; at one point
amid the post-Election Day legal wrangling in 2000, he compared Florida's
then secretary of state, Katherine Harris, to "a Soviet commissar."
Unless the race is a sure bet, Lehane said, a negative message about the opponent
should be driven home every day. This keeps the opposing campaign
off balance and wears down its resources. Even if a campaign's positive ratings
are up and things seem to be going well, sometimes it is worthwhile to continue
hammering the opponent. It's a method he compares to boxing. Begin
with the basic jab, then a series of body shots, to drain the opponent's energy.
Next comes a series of "hooks" to the head, which can inflict serious damage,
and finally, the knockout punch. "You're either throwing a punch, or being
punched," he said.
Excerpted from Going Dirty
by DAVID MARK
Copyright © 2006 by David Mark.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Meet the Author
David Mark is a senior editor for The Politico.
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