Sunday, January 27, 2008

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Looking on the bright side of politics

Kevin Drum is grumpy about the post-South Carolina primary reaction:

I haven't been impressed with very much of the chatter about Barack Obama's primary victory last night. Hillary didn't give a concession speech? Give me a break. Who cares? Turnout was up? Yes, but it's been an exciting and money-filled campaign and turnout has been up everywhere. Obama won the black vote and lost the white vote? Nothing new there. Obama won young people and Hillary won among the elderly? Again, no surprise.
I'll maintain that South Carolina is another notch in an argument I made in Newsweek ten days ago:
In a pleasant surprise, negative campaigning has not worked. Part of the explanation for Huckabee's rise in the polls has been the relentlessly upbeat quality of the campaign and the man. Mitt Romney, in contrast, has not gained much from attacking either Huckabee or McCain. Obama's optimism on the campaign trail worked well for him, until women thought Hillary was being unfairly attacked and rallied behind her. In South Carolina, however, Clinton will likely pay a price for statements made by her, her husband, and her surrogates impugning Obama in particular and, in some instances, the civil rights movement in general.
I think this thesis still holds up. Romney did well n Michigan because he stopped pandering to social conservatives and started pandering to scared auto workers campaigned on his economics and business expertise.

My real test will come in Florida on the GOP side, however. Yesterday John McCain went negative on Romney in a pretty misleading way.

If my hypothesis is correct, Romney wins Florida.

As Drum wryly observed in a previous post, "As long as negative campaigning works and it's worked pretty effectively ever since Og defeated Ug 56-55 for the presidency of the Olduvai Gorge Mammoth Hunting Alliance we'll keep seeing it." Drum is likely correct, but so far this year, negative campaigning has been a stinker of a campaign tactic.

posted by Dan on 01.27.08 at 09:56 PM


I think Drum is probably right with respect to the primaries because the people that vote in primaries don't like seeing candidates smear other candidates of the same party. During the general election, I suspect negative campaigning is more effective because most voters don't have particularly strong partisan affiliations. They are looking for a reason to vote for one person, or more realistically, for a reason to vote against someone. This is especially true, I think, when the parties are more polarized. Despite what people say, I don't think they dislike negative campaigning so much as they dislike what appears to be angry campaigning. That's why I think Edwards has made no splash. Anger does not seem to play well in American politics, especially what seems to be faux anger from a guy with nothing to be personally angry about.

posted by: Marc Schneider on 01.27.08 at 09:56 PM [permalink]

I tend to agree with you on this one. I was reflecting this morning on the '94 campaign in TX in which George W. Bush defeated Ann Richards for Governor. Though I was but a lowly undergrad at the time, what has stuck in my mind about that campaign was how vicious Richards and her people were, and how Bush largely stayed on message. I initially supported Richards, but after attending a rally at which nothing was said except for insults toward Bush, I did not vote for her.

I do think there is a difference between negative and nasty. Much of the campaign of late has been nasty. That is not working for the Clintons.

Finally, I do feel for the pollsters. So far, so much of what they thought they knew about calculating turnout has failed them. When you have candidates motivating people to vote in a primary who normally don't even vote in a general election, something different is going on. This has to be a monumental challenge to poll.

posted by: Eric Cox on 01.27.08 at 09:56 PM [permalink]

In terms of not being negative, did you notice how cordial and friendly all of the Republicans were towards one another in the Florida debate? I couldn't help but wonder if that was decided upon ahead of time in order to make them more likeable and to contrast them with the nastiness of the Democrat race. By the end of the Democrat primaries, after enduring the attacks of the Clinton smear machine, Obama is going to look like Ghandi.

posted by: Joseph Sixpack on 01.27.08 at 09:56 PM [permalink]

Did a paper on negative campaigning about 6 years ago, and according to stuff I found it slightly increases turnout across the board. But when it does advantage 1 candidate it helps..... the target of negative adds.

Why? Because the supports of the candidate attacked are so hot to prevent their guy from being unfairly pilloried that they stir themselves to vote.

posted by: MNPundit on 01.27.08 at 09:56 PM [permalink]

It's because we all want so badly to feel's pretty sad.

posted by: Rob on 01.27.08 at 09:56 PM [permalink]

I agree with Eric above with respect to the difference between negative and nasty. It's one thing to criticize someone for supporting a particular policy and attacking the candidate personally. I find it hard to believe that any candidate would benefit from attacks portraying John McCain, for god's sake, as unpatriotic. And sarcasm in general is, I think, unproductive. I remember Richards attacking George HW Bush about being born with a silver spoon or something and her sarcasm just seemed to be over the top.

The whole thing between Clinton and Obama seems silly. Bill Clinton attacked Obama for his ostensibly being against the war from the beginning, ie, as opposed to Hilary Clinton, who purportedly waffled. Whether that was true or not, it's irrelevant because the issue of who was or was not against the war originally seems to have faded. It just seems like a waste of time and actually counterproductive for Bill to raise this issue against Obama.

posted by: Marc Schneider on 01.27.08 at 09:56 PM [permalink]

Candidates and the people who run their campaigns need to keep in mind what voters like about them, and what they don't.

The Clintons have let themselves believe some of their own spin with regard to who so many people dislike one or both of them. They think it is because their political opponents are fanatics, or because the media inexplicably gives their opponents, like Sen. Obama, a free ride. In fact, a lot of people have noticed that Sen. Clinton carries around with her a considerable sense of personal entitlement, and that what her husband says is not infrequently untruthful. Sen. Clinton started the campaign with a huge advantage in name ID, and much goodwill inherited from her husband's Presidency. By not keeping her sense of entitlement under wraps -- and by not keeping her husband's statements on the factual straight and narrow -- she has already squandered much of that advantage. Much of the thinking behind her campaign appears to be consistent with the idea that people will vote for Clinton if they come to dislike Obama more. This is unlikely to happen, and in trying to make Democratic voters dislike Clinton's opponent they are advertising rather than concealing the Clintons' own least attractive qualities.

Sen. McCain is the other side of this coin. People vote for John McCain because they like and admire the guy, not because they dislike Mitt Romney. McCain's campaign, though, finds itself in a close race with Romney in Florida and is going straight to negative ads in what according to press reports is a fairly formulaic way. Whether or not these ads work for more conventional candidates, they are wrong for McCain; they step on the reason most of his supporters will vote for him. He can run ads with clips of Romney talking on both sides of an issue like abortion -- Romney has left himself open to that kind of thing -- as long as the ads don't add any commentary. But the people running McCain's campaign often run it as if he were just the usual Brand X candidate, who can win playing by the rules all the other Brand X candidates use. He can't, not in the long run anyway.

Voters do pay attention to negative campaign advertising; it works. But that doesn't mean voters like it, and if negative ads reinforce doubts have about the candidates who run them or tarnish their personal admiration of the candidate who runs them, they can backfire.

posted by: Zathras on 01.27.08 at 09:56 PM [permalink]

On the down side, we won't have Bush to kick around anymore, but maybe it doesn't apply to those not in the race.

posted by: Lord on 01.27.08 at 09:56 PM [permalink]

Richards attacking George HW Bush about being born with a silver spoon or something

Ah yes, "born with a silver foot in his mouth." I thought it pretty much nailed him.

posted by: David in NY on 01.27.08 at 09:56 PM [permalink]

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