Going negative: Does it work or boomerang?
Many political campaigns hold daily strategy meetings during which the theme-of-the-day is rehearsed and future themes are discussed. Those meetings are informed by private polls, by focus groups commissioned by the campaign itself, and by what a broad spectrum of political pundits are writing or saying. Campaign staffers try to review the entire spectrum, hoping no viewpoints have been suppressed by the fascistic enemies of free speech.
Because the “push polls,” made public by some campaigns are designed to achieve a predetermined result, they should be taken with a large box of salt. As a rule, professionally-done, private polls are not made public. Nor do they interview Clearasil®-caked teenagers hanging out in shopping malls.
While being a great communicator like Ronald Reagan or Barak Obama is a prized asset, communicating a message that does not resonate with work-a-day Americans often fails. Successful campaigns find a handful of resonating messages and stick with them day-after-day until the candidate him or herself complains that he or she wants to talk about something else. A well-advised candidate will keep repeating the messages that work.
Some matters, however, are beyond the control of campaign strategists. What if the candidate receives “unwanted” endorsements from the “wrong” kind of endorsers? And, what if some group outside the campaign decides, on its own, to attack the other candidate?
Sometimes, a campaign will encourage outside groups to launch a “surrogate” attack on the opponent. Because attacks based on falsehood usually fail, the campaign, via cut-outs, will try to steer its surrogates to stick to the facts. Meanwhile, the campaign itself may produce a series of “attack” TV spots. The race for the Democratic presidential nomination is, well… representative.
One tactic is to produce or have a surrogate group produce a TV spot that is “leaked” to the mainstream media and get them to air it for free. A classic example is the TV spot presidential candidate Lyndon Johnson “leaked” to the media showing a little girl plucking petals off a flower while a nuclear mushroom-cloud blossomed in the background. The narration suggested Republican candidate Barry Goldwater was itching to nuke the Soviets. The mainstream media aired the mushroom-cloud TV spot as a “news” item again and again for free. That nuked the Goldwater campaign.
In 1988, during a televised debate with former Massachusetts Governor, Michael Dukakis (He was my faculty adviser at Harvard), Democratic primary candidate, Al Gore, attacked Dukakis for allowing Willy Horton, who was serving a life sentence for murder, to be let out on a furlough during which Horton kidnapped a couple, stabbed the man and repeatedly raped the woman.
Unofficial supporters of the GOP nominee, Vice President George H.W. Bush, produced a TV spot that mentioned Al Gore’s televised use of Willy Horton against Dukakis. Gore supporters like to forget that “inconvenient truth.” Ironically, it was Bush, the elder, who benefitted in the general election from Al Gore’s use of Willy Horton.
Both John McCain and Barak Obama say they do not want to engage in negative campaigning. We can take them at their word or not based on how we judge their personal character, but the fact remains that uncontrolled groups can engage in character assassination, engage in guilt-by-association and/or make all manner of negative charges which may or may not be based on fact. Even when campaign officials can truthfully deny involvement, the denial often falls on deaf ears.
In 2004, the Swift Boaters’ campaign versus John Kerry succeeded because it was founded on fact. Otherwise, it would have failed. Yet, too often, it is the “allegation” that is of interest to the mainstream media, rather than the facts or lack thereof.
The American sense of “fair-play” can turn even the most factual attack against the attacker. But then, it can also depend on whose Ox is being “Gored.”
William Hamilton, a syndicated columnist and featured commentator for USA Today, created “Central View,” over 26 years ago for the SUN Newspapers of Lincoln, Nebraska. During the 1980s, Advanced Research Institute, the consulting firm co-founded by Dr. Hamilton and his wife, provided campaign research, strategy and management for many successful candidates at the state, congressional and gubernatorial levels.
©2008. William Hamilton.