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Campaign Negativity Nothing New

[ Posted Monday, April 23rd, 2012 – 16:08 PDT ]

There's an element to American political campaigns which everyone hates and almost everyone loves to denounce: the negative campaign advertisement. From now until November, many will fulminate against the "coarsening" of our political culture these ads supposedly usher in, and many will call for Mitt Romney and Barack Obama (and all the candidates further down the ballot) to renounce negative campaign advertising -- to absolutely no avail. The mudslinging will continue apace right up until Election Day, for one very simple reason: such ads work. They are effective. Which means -- especially for those living in "battleground" states -- that the only way to avoid the onslaught of political negativity will be to stop watching television altogether, until the election is safely over.

Negative campaigning has been around much longer than even the medium of television, it bears mentioning. Slinging mud at political opponents stretches back to (at the very least) Andrew Jackson's time. It is not, as many myopic political pundits (or even "journalists") would have you believe, some sort of modern invention. Political ads nowadays aren't even particularly more personal or more brutal than what took place back in the 1820s, for that matter. Most of them are quite a bit tamer, in fact.

During his first successful campaign for president, Andrew Jackson's wife was accused of bigamy for marrying him. Jackson himself was painted as a bloodthirsty "military chieftain" who was known for murdering his subordinates, and (in his spare time) fighting "pistols at dawn" duels with private citizens. The Jackson folks countered (falsely) with a story of how John Quincy Adams had "pimped" out "an American virgin" to the Czar, while Adams was America's ambassador to Russia. Can anything said so far (or likely to be said before November) in the current election compare, on the "coarsening of American politics" scale? And this is but one brief example from the history of presidential campaigning -- you really don't have to look very far to find others which are equally as bad. Scathing and scurrilous campaign mud has been routinely slung for roughly two centuries in America, whether anyone in today's media remembers these facts or not.

This won't stop the Washington media echo chamber from all agreeing that 2012 is "the most negative campaign ever" -- which is the flip side to that other chattering-class bromide: "this is the most important presidential campaign of our lifetime," which will also surely be trotted out for the public's consumption. The fact that neither is true, along with the fact that this is exactly what was said four years ago, will never be mentioned at all in what passes for conventional-wisdom political commentary.

The only thing which will be new is the organizational aspects of the mudslinging. Even this won't be all that radically changed, but instead merely more obvious in the post-Citizens United country we now live in.

The newly-defined "super PAC" structure is this year's big change, of course. But this is really just a new bottle containing some very old wine (or, perhaps, "whine"). Presidential candidates will be using these super PACs to do their dirty work in the "air wars" of negative campaigning, as we've already seen happen in the Republican primary contest. This, again, is a new twist on a very old theme -- the candidate's supporters and friends have usually been the ones who play the role of attack dog on the campaign trail, because the candidates themselves much prefer to remain "above the fray" of such unseemly behavior. In the 1800s, it was partisan newspaper editors who took on this task, whereas today it is super PACs set up and run by the candidates' buddies. The only real difference is in the Byzantine IRS regulations which much be adhered to in modern times.

At the core of this convenient setup is "deniability" for the candidate. While surrogates are out there telling the public that the opposition hates puppies, motherhood, and apple pie, the candidates themselves can somewhat-plausibly state "I had nothing to do with that ad, and I've never said anything like that myself."

According to the IRS, there is supposed to be a complete wall of separation between the candidate (and his official campaign) and any of these "outside groups." The official campaign is forbidden from coordinating anything with the super PACs, and any communication between the two is likewise verboten. This actually works to the candidates' advantage, though, because it strengthens their deniability factor.

Mitt Romney has actually already played this card, during the primary season. Challenged during a debate on one of his super PAC ads, Romney (quite correctly) noted that he was barred by law from telling the super PAC what to do -- up to and including calling on them to take any specific ad down. Romney pointed out that he could end up in jail if he attempted to do so.

Well, maybe technically -- but in real life, probably not. Our federal elections watchdog is a pretty toothless beast, which is not exactly known for its fearsome bark (much less for its pathetic bite). How many national politicians have ever wound up in jail for breaking elections laws, after all? Not very many. At the worst, candidates may be fined -- long after the election is over and the results are in -- and that's the end of it.

Romney's statement, however, points out a strange loophole in the law. While "coordination" quite obviously bars the candidate (or anyone in their official campaign) from picking up a telephone and dialing up their friendly super PAC to tell them to take a specific ad down, at the same time the law does not forbid public statements from the candidate (which are protected under their First Amendment right of free speech). So candidates have taken to, perhaps during a press conference, saying things like: "I had nothing to do with that anti-puppy, anti-Mom, anti-apple-pie ad, and I don't think it should be up on the airwaves."

Nothing illegal about that, and the super PAC successfully gets its marching orders, as clear as if an actual phone call had been made. But since there is technically no private communication between the candidate and the super PAC, no laws have been broken. The candidate is merely expressing his personal opinion, after all.

By doing so, he also strengthens his deniability stance. He can point to the IRS regulations, and say that the super PAC didn't communicate with his campaign, and therefore he can't be held responsible for anything they do. While at the same time, of course, he benefits from the ad's impact on the public. The nastier the ad, ironically, the more free press it will get -- as the ad itself becomes that day's "story" in the media.

The only real difference in 2012 may be the sheer amount of money being spent on the outside groups. Citizens United has opened the floodgates for such money to pour into these "unofficial" campaign organizations, and they will be spending hundreds of millions of dollars before we all head off to the polls in November.

But the negativity itself isn't really anything new. The deniability has been somewhat strengthened, but this too is not a new stance for candidates to take. There will be lots and lots of handwringing by many well-intentioned people who decry the coarseness of modern American campaign tactics, the influence of corporate money, and all the rest of it. But while they may have a point about the magnitude of cash flowing into negative ads this time around, and while they may indeed have a point about the insidiousness of corporate money in American political campaigns, the nastiness itself is really nothing new. Neither, for that matter, is the deniability. This game has been played by American politicians for a very long time, in fact.

-- Chris Weigant

 

Cross-posted at Business Insider
Cross-posted at The Huffington Post

Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant

 

13 Comments on “Campaign Negativity Nothing New”

  1. [1] 
    BashiBazouk wrote:

    I once worked for a guy with one of the larger political memorabilia collections in the country. My favorite item in his collection was a nasty little negative attack charm. It was a charm that you would attach to a charm bracelet. The figure was of a pig, and if you held it up to the light and looked through it's butt hole you would see the name of the opposing candidate. I think it came from the late 1800's and at that time some version of "up a pigs rear end" was a common insult.

    I think it might be fun to start a superPAC and re-release such a charm modified to the current campaign. Purely for nostalgic reasons of course...

  2. [2] 
    Michale wrote:

    Which means -- especially for those living in "battleground" states -- that the only way to avoid the onslaught of political negativity will be to stop watching television altogether, until the election is safely over.

    Or, get your TV thru other means.. Sans commercials :D

    I highly recommend that option. I don't think the wife and I have seen a television commercial in 8 years..

    The newly-defined "super PAC" structure is this year's big change, of course. But this is really just a new bottle containing some very old wine (or, perhaps, "whine").

    And yet, when the Citizens United ruling came down, the howls around here reached a crescendo!! You would have thought that End Of Days was amongst us to read the posts around here..

    Go figger, eh? :D

    While surrogates are out there telling the public that the opposition hates puppies,

    or, in some cases, EATS puppies. :D Ya gotta admit, THAT one was pretty damn funny... :D

    The only real difference in 2012 may be the sheer amount of money being spent on the outside groups. Citizens United has opened the floodgates for such money to pour into these "unofficial" campaign organizations, and they will be spending hundreds of millions of dollars before we all head off to the polls in November.

    The funny thing is, the floodgates of money only seem to be going to Romney. The Obama campaign seems to be lucky just to get a plug nickel...

    It's simply the Hoo-Hum season... Democrats will scream and yell that Republicans want to murder seniors in their beds and Republicans will yell and scream (as opposed to scream and yell) that Democrats want to take terrorists to tea....

    ((((yaaaaawwwwnnnnn))) Let's see what's on ONCE UPON A TIME tonight. Love that Rumplestiltskin... :D

    Michale.....

  3. [3] 
    Michale wrote:

    or, in some cases, EATS puppies. :D Ya gotta admit, THAT one was pretty damn funny... :D

    Sorry, forgot to add the visual

    http://sweasel.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/mmmm.jpg

    :D

    Michale.....

  4. [4] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Bashi -

    Coincidentally enough, the Jackson campaign was the first ever to use campaign paraphernalia such as buttons and scarves (and even wallpaper, believe it or not!)....

    :-)

    Your friend have anything from 1828? Or 1832? I'd love to see such items!

    -CW

  5. [5] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Bashi -

    Forgot to say, hadn't heard about the pig charms, but one wonders if this saying wasn't later "cleaned up" to be: "in a pig's eye"... you can easily see what the original would have been. Heh.

    Also, forget who (Harrison, maybe? Not sure if B or WH...) but the coolest campaign gimmicky thing was when a candidate was ridiculed for living in a log cabin (long before Lincoln used it), and "drinking hard cider". He then adopted the slur as a campaign slogan and started handing out little bottles shaped like a log cabin filled with hard cider. Heh heh.

    :-)

    -CW

  6. [6] 
    DonKrieger wrote:

    Dear Mr. Weigant:

    Your article neglects a significant historical difference in negative political advertizing, viz. the use of ever increasingly sophisticated polling methods to guide the ads. Along with the constant of human vulnerability to manipulation by hateful and/or fearsome ads, the effectiveness of these ads is enhanced by information gained from polls and focus groups.

    Political operatives want to know what we think so they can tell us the lie we will believe. Or in more detail, they put up an ad campaign trashing something someone said or did, do a poll to see if it is helping their polling numbers, and based on that decide how to modify the ads and spend more money on placing them.

    The problem with PACs, SuperPACs, and lobbying is that the people who bankroll the campaigns are the people whose wishes are heard by the candidates who get elected. To the extent that candidates who get elected have integrity they care and try to follow the wishes of their constituencies. But that's not how they get elected or stay in office. That because the great bulk of their money comes from a relatively few big contributors. And it's the money that gets them elected.

    One way to undercut that is to eliminate the value that they get by spending that money on the ad campaigns guided by polls. Reducing access to accurate polling information will make those campaigns less effective, i.e. the value gained by money special interests can be reduced by denying political campaigns polling information.

    Don

  7. [7] 
    dsws wrote:

    Yes, the "hard cider campaign" was William Harrison, aka Tippecanoe.

    --

    I don't want to eliminate negative campaigning. I just want to keep it mostly out of the legislative process.

    I think a legislature should represent the full range of views of the population, roughly in proportion to their respective numbers. Then, the legislators should deliberate: actually work on how best to reconcile their respective principles. To the extent that deliberation fails, legislators should compromise: advance the higher priorities of all legislators at the expense of their respective lower priorities.

    Instead, we seem to have a dynamic that ranges along a spectrum from grandstanding to obstructionism.

    I blame the institutions. First and foremost, I blame completely-separate single-seat geographic-district plurality elections. The legislators don't even remotely represent the range of views of the populace. In a plurality election, voters choose (D), (R), or (null). Only the top two candidates have any possibility of winning a simple single-seat election. A third-party vote is just a protest vote.

    But the unproportionality of the elections can't be the whole story. A good set of legislative institutions should be able to produce deliberation and compromise among whatever set of legislators the electoral process brings forth.

    I still blame the institutions, of course. Second, I blame the lack of multiple degrees of entrenchment of laws. We have three: regulations, statutes, and the Constitution. But in the legislative process, only one of those is at stake. Constitutional amendments do involve action by Congress, but that option normally is out of the picture (except as a rhetorical excuse for not doing what you supposedly favor). As it is, there's no incentive to get more than 61 senators and 218 representatives on board. So there's no benefit in considering the principles or interests of any other legislators, if they can hold together enough to meet the threshold for passage. There should be legislative actions requiring numerous levels of sub-majority and super-majority support, so that no matter how many legislators you have on board there's a possibility of getting by with fewer and doing an action a bit lower on the scale, and a possibility of getting the support of a few more to allow for a stronger action. That would give something to negotiate about.

    --

    What got me started on this rant was a mention of the Violence Against Women Act on the radio. It sounds as though it was always reauthorized without dispute before, but now the Democrats in the Senate have put in some provisions the Republicans are sure to reject, as a way of getting traction for the "war on women" campaign theme.

    That's how things work under the current rules. The options are to play hardball politics in a way that utterly stinks, or simply lose. Perhaps to their credit, the Democrats are habitual losers. Of course, they may just do it out of sheer incompetence. Here we have an example of them doing it the way the system virtually requires, which will almost certainly gain them some advantage. I can't blame them for that, since the results of just losing are worse. But it still stinks. They should at least be trying to change the system, too.

    The question is what they should be trying to change the system to. I think my suggestions are necessary, but far from sufficient.

  8. [8] 
    Michale wrote:

    Politicians have a vested interest in keeping the system exactly the way it is..

    Republicans ***AND*** Democrats...

    A point that never seems to gain any traction.. :D

    Michale.....

  9. [9] 
    akadjian wrote:

    @Bashi

    Genius! Let us know when it comes to market!

    -David

  10. [10] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    DonKrieger -

    May I call you "Don"? Hope so, because with our respective last names, I just know I'm going to type "ei" sooner or later and get yours wrong....

    First, allow me to welcome you to the site. Your first comment was held for moderation, but from now on you should be able to post your comments instantly. Unless you post two or more links per comment, in which case it will be automatically held for moderation to cut down on comment spam.

    As to your points, I am not going to answer them immediately, because you have given me an idea for today's column. So please allow me to write and post it, and then I'll return here and continue the conversation. And let me thank you, up front, for providing me with an idea for a followup column to this one.

    :-)

    -CW

  11. [11] 
    tinsldr2 wrote:

    Chris wrote:

    "At the core of this convenient setup is "deniability" for the candidate. While surrogates are out there telling the public that the opposition hates puppies,..."

    You know that nobody will ever say that about Obama,,, He said how much he liked them in his autobiography , well he did say they can be "tough" but well...

    LOL

    From the movie Hombre

    Audra Favor: Have you ever eaten a dog, Mr. Russell?
    John Russell: Eaten one and lived like one.

  12. [12] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Heh. Yeah, I just knew someone would pick up on that puppies reference...

    :-)

    -CW

  13. [13] 
    Michale wrote:

    Heh. Yeah, I just knew someone would pick up on that puppies reference...

    What am I?? Chopped liver?? :D

    Michale.....

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