“Sorry, John, but I’m at the point where I just can’t take the political news anymore,” said a relative of mine. “It’s just all so negative these days.”
Of course, any experienced veteran of following political campaigns will tell you that even if a candidate says nine positive things and one negative thing, you know what will happen. The negative thing will get 90 percent of the coverage!
But we’re also into the part of the campaign season I call “defining your opponent.” In the old days, this wouldn’t happen until after the political conventions, when the campaigns began in earnest. But candidates have their nominations sewn up earlier these days, and Iowa Caucuses are shifting from February to December of the year before! So everything is moved up a few months.
Also, the candidate who is behind or stuck in a close race often runs the risk of letting the opponent stay popular for too long, and folks make up their minds so much earlier in modern elections. So the conventional wisdom says you have to “draw blood first.”
A good contrast in styles comes from Bush Sr. and Bush Jr. The former launched his attack after the convention against Michael Dukakis in late August, and finally surpassed the Massachusetts Governor in September. “Dubbya’s” team came out swinging earlier with the “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” against another unsuccessful Massachusetts politician: Senator John Kerry.
Pundits may look at that Bush-Kerry contest for lessons. They feel that what you have to do if you are a candidate (especially an incumbent) is to go negative early and often. Pound away enough times and you’ll win. I feel Obama and Romney are adopting this strategy this year.
The only problem is that it’s not often a successful model. Kerry also went negative early, to no avail. And Bush won re-election only by the closest margin since Woodrow Wilson in 1916. In fact, Wilson went to bed thinking he had lost. Before “Dewey Defeats Truman,” there were newspapers hailing the victory of Charles Evans Hughes. That’s too close for comfort.
The candidates would do well to emulate two models: Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America” in 1984 and Bill Clinton’s “Building a Bridge to the Twenty-First Century” in 1996. Both stayed relatively positive, relatively upbeat, and offered somewhat of a vision of what each intended to accomplish in the next four years.
Those times the two did go negative, it primarily used the words of the other candidate. Reagan’s campaign reminded folks of Mondale’s words about taxes at the Democratic National Convention in San Francisco. And Clinton wisely ran Dole’s words attacking Medicare and Medicaid, allowing Dole to even blunder into saying that the speech was an old one. When the Clinton team showed Dole’s speech with the date of the speech (1995), the Kansas Senator’s fate was sealed.
Obama and Romney need to focus on what they intend to DO over the next four years, instead of how bad a person their opponent is. The lopsided margins Reagan and Clinton won by in their reelection years are evidence of this, especially considering that both candidates inherited bad economies, and some residual economic pain still existed for both.
John A. Tures is associate professor of political science at LaGrange College.