Why The Campaign is So Negative

Why is the campaign so negative?David Broder gets both candidates to agree that the campaign has gotten more bitter than they’d like and is intigued by John McCain’s suggestion, “I think we could have avoided at least some of this if we had agreed to do the town hall meetings.” The early blogospheric response to this has come mostly from Obama supporters who, not surprisingly,  think this is a bizarre fantasy and believe the negativity is almost entirely of McCain’s making.

  • Kevin Drum: “In the gamma quadrant, maybe so, but back here at home I’d take a guess that McCain’s hiring of Steve Schmidt had a wee bit more to do with it.”
  • John Cole: “You can believe that if you want, just like you can believe the blame for the negative tone of the campaign is shared equally by Obama and McCain, as Broder certainly does. But then, of course, you would probably have to be as foolish as Broder.”
  • Creature: “The only thing David Broder accomplishes with his column today is to reveal his bias toward McCain.”
  • Shaun Mullen: “Even though McCain reacted negatively to Obama’s counteroffer of two town hall debates and decided there would be none, it is solely Obama’s fault because he did not accept all five. And, as a result of there being no town hall debates, the candidates couldn’t stand on the same stage and become fine friends.”
  • Steve Benen: “It’s a classic non sequitur — whether McCain runs a relentlessly negative, substance-free campaign has nothing to do with his proposal for extra debates.”

While Obama has certainly engaged in negative campaigning against McCain, I agree with the above commentators that McCain has run a mostly negative campaign in recent weeks and that Broder’s assumption of equivalence is odd.  Then again, I happen to agree with Dean Barnett, who questions the premise:

What’s most bothersome about such articles aside from their sheer tedium is how spectacularly mistaken they are. American politics ain’t beanbag, and they never have been. Andrew Jackson’s wife was hounded to her death by his political opponents pushing stories about her being a bigamist. (Lucky for them Old Hickory wasn’t the vengeful type.) The 19th century also produced the memorable high-road slogan, “Ma, Ma, Where’s My Pa? Gone to the White House Ha-ha-ha.” As Broder was probably around for that campaign, it’s surprising he’s forgotten it.

Since every American presidential campaign has been a negative low-road affair, one might ask if there’s a systemic reason why this is so. And guess what? There is! Politics is one of life’s very rare zero sum games; each vote your opponent gets is one that you won’t. You’re in direct competition with your opponent, and the competition is fierce.

Since securing the nomination, this has been, and remains, Obama’s election to lose.  He’s young, charismatic, exciting, and new and the public seems genuinely desperate to break away from the politics of the past few years.  McCain’s only hope to win is to persuade the public that Obama’s not who he pretends to be and that we need a man of his seasoning during a dangerous time.

While I think the linkage is dramatically oversold, McCain’s probably right that, had the two men been forced to stand side-by-side in a series of freewheeling debates in front of a live audience, the dynamic of the campaign would be different. The argument isn’t that the two men would have become best buds, going out for beers and the occasional ball game afterward, but that it’s simply easier to be negative in television spots than in person.  Yes, he could have done both.  But it’s harder to do that if you’ll soon have to defend your spots to the other guy’s face.

Beyond that, townhall meetings have been McCain’s strength in both his presidential campaigns.  That format would have given him a chance to shift the dynamic of the contest.  (I happen to still believe, as I did when the idea was suggested, that Obama would have likewise excelled in the format.  My parallel prediction that, the “Obama-McCain fall matchup will be relatively issue oriented compared to recent contests,” has sadly proved mistaken.)  Absent that, and especially in light of Obama’s rock star reception on his overseas trip, negative television spots were McCain’s best shot.

The reason candidates, especially trailing candidates, have run negative campaigns over all these years is simple:  They work.  They raise doubts about the opponent with relatively little damage to one’s own image. And it’s much easier to run an attack in 30 seconds than to respond to it.  Conversely, a 30 second spot that’s all hope and sunshine barely moves the dials.

Photo credit: ABC News

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2008, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Alex Knapp says:

    Personally, what I’ve found interesting is that McCain’s negative ads are all: Obama’s bad! Obama’s bad! So far, all the Obama ads that I’ve seen (and I’ve been inundated with all the ads–I live by the border and Missouri is a swing state), attack McCain, sure, but the attack is almost always legit (ie, on a policy matter or about his campaign contributors), and almost ALWAYS end with “here’s why Obama’s good”. I think the juxtaposition (McCain bad, Obama good rather than merely McCain bad) makes Obama’s ads more effective. McCain’s campaign ought to take a lesson, because right now McCain’s campaign looks really petty.

    (As for townhall debates, by the way, I think McCain’s lucky that Obama didn’t agree. They didn’t used to be his strength, but over the past few weeks Obama has really improved his game there.)

  2. sam says:

    McCain’s suggestion, “I think we could have avoided at least some of this if we had agreed to do the town hall meetings.”

    Sure, and had Napleon had tanks, he would have won at Waterloo.

    He’s young, charismatic, exciting, and new

    I.e., he’s not McCain. I usually give Maureen Dowd almost no credit, but her column of 8.5 might be pretty close to the truth:

    McCain’s Green-Eyed Monster

  3. Steve Plunk says:

    I see Alex is playing favorites. McCain “attacks” or points out Obama’s lack of experience and substance. “Obama’s bad! Obama’s Bad!” come on, give us all a break. That “petty” campaign is closing in.

    We have complained for years about negative campaigns but are they really that bad? I don’t think so. The world is a tough place and if candidates can’t weather a negative campaign how will they weather foreign despots who are really, really mean. I say man up.

  4. Floyd says:

    This campaign is far more civil than the society it hopes to represent.

    There are about three months until the election, If only all positives are aired, what will they do with the other 12 weeks and 4 days??

    Disregarding politics, what issues ARE treated with a civil or positive approach in the media today???

  5. Bithead says:

    This campaign is far more civil than the society it hopes to represent.

    Which is a correlary to my long-term argument that what is on the blogs is a reflection of what’s already out there… that blogs are reactive. They work with what’s already out there.

    I suggest politics are the same way, and therefore, campaigns. This parallel would seem to apply particularly well to political blogs I suppose the quotes James puts up here to be among the more civil examples of that.

    There are about three months until the election, If only all positives are aired, what will they do with the other 12 weeks and 4 days??

    Mmmmmppphhhfff.
    True; There are some issues one cannot play Pollyanna over. As an example, and at the risk of tossing this thing down a subthread, let’s run a quote from Boortz, this morning:

    Barack Obama is trying his darndest to link John McCain to “big oil” and Dick Cheney. Yesterday on the program we talked about Obama’s latest McCain-Exxon ad, where he claims that John McCain has received $2 million in campaign contributions from people in the oil industry … which is completely untrue. The actual figure is more like $1.3 or $1.4 million, but that is beside the point. What Obama failed to mention is that he himself has received well over $400,000 in campaign contributions from “big oil.” Nice try, BO!

    Something else that Barack Obama has failed to bring up … and that the media has failed to point out (there’s a surprise) … is that Obama voted for an energy bill in 2005 that included billions in subsidies for oil and natural gas production. Dick Cheney was credited with writing, or at least influencing, much of the bill. And yet Barack voted for it … twice. Even more surprising is that John McCain did not vote for the bill “because it included billions in unnecessary tax breaks for the oil industry.”

    The Obama camp says that he supported the bill because it included “huge investments in renewable energy.” Yeah, like the ethanol industry … and we know how well that has gone.

    Want another example of Obama’s failure to tell the whole truth? He is also saying that McCain is trying to push a $4 billion tax break for the oil industry. Just what is The Chosen One talking about? That would be McCain’s proposal to lower corporate income taxes. Currently the United States has the second-largest corporate income tax in the industrialized world. Our punishing tax rates are chasing businesses and capital overseas. Now if you do the math you will see that if McCain manages to get his cut in the corporate tax rate through would cut corporate taxes to oil companies by about $4 billion. So there you go …. Ignoring all of the other American businesses that would benefit, The Big BO is pushing the idea to his ignorant followers that this is really nothing more than a big break for big oil.

    OK, granted that’s pretty snarky, though I’ll note that Boortz tends to be that way as a matter of reflex. But Obama’s getting caught in several bald faced lies. How does one present this without having the charge of ‘going negative’ thown at you?

    “Well, he delivered these lies in a wonderful speaking voice….”

  6. I find it difficult to believe that anyone spends time defending either of the campaigns.

    McCain has gone more negative of late. Coincidentally, the sheen seems to be coming off Obama a little. I also notice that Obama is spending more time responding to the mean old man’s attacks, which means he isn’t able to get away with merely spouting platitudes to adoring crowds about the rivers of chocolate and children flying kites that will materialize when he’s in charge.

    People who complain about negative campaigning and think this is bad are frankly utterly ignorant of history and human nature. But hey, it sells soap.

  7. Bithead says:

    which means he isn’t able to get away with merely spouting platitudes to adoring crowds about the rivers of chocolate and children flying kites that will materialize when he’s in charge.

    Now that’s just downright mean.
    Aren’t you ashamed?

  8. bains says:

    My goodness Alex! Just how thick are your Obama-goggles? I know you want the man to be our next President, but does that aim require you to lose any semblance of objectivity?

  9. bains says:

    Now that’s just downright mean.

    Like shooting alligator luggage, Bit?

  10. DL says:

    There are only two ways to deal with a fake messiah. You can join the crowd in their worship by not exposing the faux or you can attack the deception at hand. I’m tired of the left’s always attempting to censor, hiding behind, and protect their deception by using the term “negative.”

    I believe the Ten Commandments are placed in the negative format – but when followed, have a Positive result.

    Elections are about truth – hiding it and exposing it.

  11. davod says:

    In what way are the McCain ads more negative than The One’s ads, other than being blasphemous,

  12. Bithead says:

    Like shooting alligator luggage, Bit?

    (Snicker.)

    Elections are about truth – hiding it and exposing it.

    That’s what this really comes down to, and why I have always and invariably chafed at the complains about politics ‘going negative’. Sorry, but bringing flaws of the candidates out into the open, sometimes by force, is what campaigns are suppsoed to be all about. A political campaign, hopefully, is the crucible in which we expose the impurities of content of those candidates who willingly enter it so as to allow the voter an informed choice. Anyone (Yes, including McCain) who enters a campaign, telling us he’s taking the high road and not going negative, what they’re really doing is forcing the voter into the position of judging candiates soley by their abiliy to mouth empty, meaningless platitudes… and in that event, Obama wins hands down.

  13. davod says:

    “…what they’re really doing is forcing the voter into the position of judging candiates soley by their abiliy to mouth empty, meaningless platitudes… and in that event, Obama wins hands down.”

    Racist

  14. Floyd says:

    “”Racist””
    “”””””””””””””””””””””””””””””

    NONSENSE

  15. Bithead says:

    I suspect your sarcasm sensors may require a recalibration, Floyd.

  16. Floyd says:

    Such are the foibles of it’s use! Excuse me.

  17. Bithead says:

    Such are the foibles of it’s use!

    True ’nuff.