Negative Campaigns From Thomas Jefferson to George W. Bush

Interview with David Mark, author of Going Dirty: The Art of Negative Campaigning

Veteran political journalist David Mark is the senior editor of Politico. His career includes stints as editor of Campaigns and Elections magazine and as a reporter with Congressional Quarterly and the Associated Press. His book about negative political campaigns, Going Dirty has been featured in interviews on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and with pundits Bill O'Reilly and Greta van Sustern.

Book Help Web: How did all of this negative campaigning we see and hear come about?

David Mark photoDavid Mark: Negative campaigning goes back to the earliest days of our republic to the political campigns of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Back then, rather then television or web ads, it was in newspapers. We're used to objective news organizations now, but back then newspapers were very party-oriented, and they would print vicious things about candidates like Thomas Jefferson or John Adams. And it wasn't just about their policies. They would go after their personal lives -- their drinking habits, their wives, their children. They would allege all kinds of affairs and dastardly deeds in a way that we would never accept today.

Imagine the Founding Fathers participating in negative campaigning! What are some of your favorite stories about negative campaigning?

There are so many to choose from. In the election of 1800 between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, Adams was accused of being a monarchist who wanted to move the country to a monarchy under Britain and France. That was a very sensitive issue since the Revolutionary War had just come to a conclusion a generation before. Thomas Jefferson was accused, in very rough terms, of being a misogynist and of having an affair with a black lady (which, apparently, turned out to be true).

In the election of 1860, Abraham Lincoln was mocked as being "ape-like" for his tall stature and Kentucky twang.

Then in the mid 20th century, negative campaigning really took off in the television era. One of the first targets was Richard Nixon, who during the 1956 reelection campaign with Dwight Eisenhower, had questions raised about his ability to take over as President. We saw this later on too, questioning Spiro Agnew in 1968 and then Dan Quayle and now Sarah Palin.

In Going Dirty, you point to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the US as a turning point where negative campaigning seemed to tack a different tack. How so?

Negative campaigning has always been rough, but after the events of September 11, for the first time in American political history, we started to see candidates questioning the patriotism of the opposition, suggesting in a sense, "If you elect my opponent, we're likely to get attacked again."

We hadn't really seen this before, and it started in a US Senate race in Georgia in 2002. The incumbent was Senator Max Cleland, a Democrat. He had fought in the Vietnam War; in fact, he had been wounded and lost three limbs. Later he was elected to the U.S. Senate. He was being challenged by a then-Republican congressman named Zachary Chambliss who ran an ad late in the campaign -- just three or four weeks before Election Day -- that opened with images of Sadaam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. The ad faded to black and showed pictures of Max Cleland, the sitting Democratic senator, and raised questions about his votes on homeland security, and some said, questioning his patriotism.

That was the first time we saw international villains like that linked to American political figures, and this became somewhat commonplace. The Republican challenger actually won that election.

George W. Bush used that tactic against John Kerry in 2004. There was an ad showing wolves in the forest, suggesting that if John Kerry were elected, it would lead to potentially another terrorist attack.

You mentioned Georgia. Is negative campaigning more prevalent at the local, state or national level?

I think negative campaigns are certainly run at all three levels, just in different ways. At the local level, you get a lot more whispering campaigns. If you're running for a School Board or City Council seat, you're trying to persuade a much smaller group of people.

When you get to a state-wide race, it costs a lot more money to run so you have to run tougher. You have to use television, web ads and radio spots, but negative campaigning still goes on a lot. At the national level, negative campaigning is very common, and the interesting thing is that it doesn't always come from the candidates themselves.

Often we see third parties, like the Swift Boat veterans in 2004 who ran those ads questioning John Kerry's military service during the Vietnam era. The hardest hitting campaign may not come from the candidates themselves. They come from outside groups which have nothing to lose by running the ad.

Do these ads run by third parties ever rebound back and cause a candidate to lose a race?

Certainly. There are many examples of negative campaigning backfiring. Candidates have to be very careful on how they utilize these.

In the 2004 campaign between President George W. Bush and John Kerry, the subject of gay marriage was raised at one of the debates. John Kerry raised the issue of the sexual orientation of one of Vice President Dick Cheney's daughters and he thought he was making a point to criticize the Bush administration's point on this, but the reaction was furious. The outrage that John Kerry would bring up a family member was so harsh that it led to him sinking in the polls. Candidates realize they have to be very careful how they use negative campaigning. That's why they often don't go as aggressively as they could against the opposition.

I'm very fond of the book's subtitle, the "art of negative campaigning". It's what led me to write the book. During the 2004 presidential primaries, going into the Iowa caucuses, the first major contest, John Kerry, the eventual nominee, was not in the lead. The front runners were Howard Dean, the former Vermont governor who was a very vocal critic of the Bush administration on Iraq and other issues and Dick Gephardt, the House democratic leader from Missouri, a veteran politician who had run for President before.

Those two frontrunners ran a slew of negative ads against each other on television, radio and on the Internet. The strategy backfired on both of them. Iowa has a long history of turning its back on negative campaigning and punishing candidates who practice it. John Kerry stayed very positive, he ended up coming in first and the other two candidates were soon both out of the race. This is a very telling example of how negative campaigning does not always work, and it can hurt as much as it helps.

You mention John Kerry remaining positive in Iowa. Is there a candidate we would know who stayed that way throughout an entire election cycle?

There are very few candidates at the national level who have not engaged in some level of negative campaigning. Much depends on the race. If you're beating your opponent by 20 points, there is really no reason to beat up on them because it only makes you look like a bully. Some candidates will refrain. Bill Clinton, when he was running for reelection as president in 1996 against Republican Bob Dole, certainly did run some negative ads, but they were focused almost entirely on policy, not personal the way we see in some of the other campaigns. They didn't get into Dole's sometimes surly personality or other issues that might have been fodder for an attack ad. That was a really good example of just sticking to the issue, and that's where negative campaigning works most effectively.

Personalities seem to be defining the current presidential race. I know that you were brought in to an issue in the national media over the moderation of the debate between Governor Palin and Senator Biden and that you spoke to a number of journalists who were concerned over the moderator. Was that a form of negative campaigning?

That's an excellent example of subterranean negative campaigning. That's negative campaigning when you're not really dealing with the opposition. This was an issue of Gwen Ifill, the longtime PBS host who was criticized just a couple of days before her role moderating the vice presidential debates because she had been working on a book about prominent African-Americans, one of whom happened to be Barack Obama. We haven't seen the book yet. We're not sure what the content is going to be, but a lot of folks on the right or those who preferred McCain over Obama, said that this made her biased and was unfair because she was already tilting one way.

I took the stance on national television that Gwen Ifill should be judged on the merit of her record as a journalist and nothing else. That's after all why she was chosen to moderate the debate. Despite that, this stirred up a big controversy. It was the lead story on the Drudge Report, on Fox News Channel, for more than a day and it's kind of like throwing sand in the middle of a fight. All it did was obscure the real issues.

We saw a similar event when Barack Obama referred to the McCain economic plan as lipstick on a pig, which some took as a mocking reference to Governor Palin, McCain's running mate. I don't think Obama meant it that way, but nonetheless, that became a story for two or three days rather than discussion of the war in Iraq, the financial bailout or other economic problems. These are real serious issues the next president is going to have to grapple with.

I'll ask you to put on your futurist's hat, David. Is this going to continue? We profess to hate negative campaigns and want to talk about the issues, but they seem to work, don't they?

Negative campanging often does work. I take the view that it's often good because it draws out the issues, the distinctions and differences that the candidates don't want to really discuss. I think it actually plays a healthy role in democracy in helping define voter choice. When it gets personal and ugly, then sometimes that can backfire, but it's self-correcting. Candidates have a pretty good idea of when its going to work and when it won't. Sometimes they miss, but they know that there are lmits to it.

In the future, the campaigning is going to become increasingly targeted. The days when you could just run a 30 second campaign ad and hope that viewers were influenced by it are rapidly diminishing. What we're seeing instead is sophisticated micro-targeting. That's going after individual neighborhoods, blocks, even household by household to target messages to individuals and the more information available thorugh the web and other sources, the more precisely one can target.

You can get them from publicly available information, from voting records. You can tell how often and where people have voted, certainly what party they are registered in. You can get their home sales information, that's all public information. You can buy private data lists like magazine subscriptions, car purchases, and you try to develop a voter profile based on all of this data. These profiles are increasingly accurate and I think that's where we will see a lot of negative messages in the future -- through banner ads on web sites, local cable tv spots. These will be really sophisticated, highly precise, targeted messages that we have not seen in the past.

Negative campaigning really evolves with whatever techonolgies are out there. Whenever a new technology makes its way into politics, negative campaigning is usually the first tactic to use it. We found that with radio in the 1920s, with television in the 1950s, the Internet in the mid and late 1990s, and whatever the more recent technologies are, whether it is podcasts or Twitter. These often get used so that campaigns can quickly send out negative messages about the opposition. It's just striking how quickly they adapt.

--G. Bounacos

Lipstick On  A Pig T-shirt