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By Jay Cost

« Idle Entertainment | HorseRaceBlog Home Page | On "Electability" »

Negativity in the Democratic Campaign

Kimberly Strassel had an interesting article on Friday that reviewed the weak spots of Hillary Clinton's campaign. It raised several points that I have wished to discuss for some time. She writes:

Until recently, the biggest thing going for Hillary is that she has appeared "inevitable." This is no accident. Mrs. Clinton may not be as naturally gifted as her husband, but she does have access to his playbook. One of Bill's more brilliant strategies when he ran in 1992 was to campaign as if he were already the nominee. It gave an otherwise little-known governor the legitimacy to sideline his opponents.

Mrs. Clinton has made this tactic a cornerstone of her campaign, and it had been working. During debates she frequently speaks on "behalf of everyone" on the stage. She chooses moments wisely to make statements no Democrat disagrees with ("George Bush is ruining this country"), leaving the competition nodding in miserable agreement. Her insistence that she and her Democratic colleagues should keep this race focused on their arch-enemy was equally savvy. With everyone piling on Dubya, nobody was piling on her.

Add to this Mrs. Clinton's stash of money, the vaunted infrastructure, the endorsements and her superstar status. The Clinton campaign has flogged all of these to leave the impression she's the only player in the game.

I agree with Strassel that this is what the Clinton campaign has done. I think that the strategy was a smart one. Research has shown that primary voters tend to view leading candidates more warmly because they are leading. They also tend to find reasons to support leading candidates. And so, campaigns have an interest in appearing to be in the lead. Mrs. Clinton's campaign has been as good as any non-incumbent campaign in the post-reform era at creating this impression.

Of course, I never thought much of the conclusion that Clinton was inevitable. It always seemed to me to require a false view of what those summer polling numbers really meant. It also seemed to be exactly the impression that Clinton campaign endeavored to create. Nevertheless, I was mightily impressed that it was able to construct such an artifice. It had most pundits convinced that a man who raised $80,000,000 was not even going to make it interesting. That was quite a feat.

Strassel notes another tactic that Clinton has used to great effect. She has endeavored to diminish the perceptions of disagreement - between herself, her fellow candidates, and the Democratic electorate. This is a common ploy with frontrunner campaigns. The fewer areas of contrast, the fewer reasons voters have for switching their support from one candidate to another. So, research has shown - unsurprisingly - that front running candidates tend to offer fewer substantive policy proposals. Why give voters a reason to disagree with you? Clinton does something akin to this every time she agrees with her opponents and pours it on Bush. Rudy Giuliani has done a very good job of this on the Republican side. He has explicitly praised some of his opponents - Huckabee and McCain, for instance - and he has taken every opportunity to attack Clinton.

What, then, should Clinton's challengers do about her? Strassel has some suggestions:

Mrs. Clinton's opponents have also got wise to her "inevitability" game, and no one more so than John Edwards. His decision to unleash the big guns on her Iraq vote and "dirty" corporate money has already yielded him a victory. She's deigned to acknowledge he's actually on the stage and even answered some of his criticisms, which in turn has suggested to audiences that she views him as a threat. [Snip]

Grateful as that nation is to Mr. Edwards for livening up the debate and unleashing some healthy Clinton criticism from other campaigns, we're also just 40 days from Iowa. The long, gentle treatment by opponents allowed Mrs. Clinton to build up such a sizable lead the attacks might now come a little too late.

They also may remain a little too little. Yes, Mr. Edwards is hitting Mrs. Clinton on foreign policy. Yes, Barack Obama is taking it to her on trade. But consider this: What none of her Democratic opponents has broached--what has so far been a super-off-limits-high-security-no-fly-zone--is any direct mention of Mrs. Clinton's ethically challenged period as first lady.

I disagree. Strassel fails to account for the fact that a negative campaign carries with it serious risks. It does. And so, when a candidate engages in negativity - he or she must be adroit. Richard Lau and Gerald Pomper - both of Rutgers University - have found, for instance, that incumbent senators who go negative in their reelection campaigns tend to lose support. This effect is independent of the competitiveness of the race. They conclude in a 2002 article on the subject, "A full accounting of the evidence suggests that, as often as not, attacking the opponent is a counter-productive campaign strategy to follow."

Note that Lau and Pomper track the effects of negativity in general election Senate races. We are talking about a presidential primary - and, so far as I know, this is a subject that has not been studied thoroughly. But that is all the more reason for candidates to be cautious. We know that going negative can be a double-edged sword, but we are not exactly sure when and where. So - the negative campaign is a weapon that should be wielded with a deft touch.

Dexterity is especially required for an attack on Hillary Clinton - and it is not because she is a woman. It is because, among Democratic primary voters, she is well known and well liked. She has been in the public eye for about sixteen years. Voter opinions of her are not based upon a dearth of information. And, according to the most recent Fox News poll, Democratic voters like her. Clinton's net favorable rating among Democrats is +58%. So, Obama or Edwards cannot just go after Clinton willy nilly. The attacks have to be subtle because they are directed at a public that knows of and is disposed toward her.

What they should not do is make use of "Republican talking points," which is precisely what Strassel suggests by exhorting Obama and Edwards to go after Clinton on ethics. Political scientists have found that negative advertising reinforces previous partisan dispositions rather than persuade the skeptical. And so, an attack on Clinton's ethics might influence an electorate composed largely of Republicans. But, obviously, the Democratic primary will have few of them involved. There will be a lot of Democrats who participate - and I doubt they would buy such an attack, especially if it was predicated on something old. As a matter of fact, I could see those voters being persuaded by the Clinton rejoinder: stop calling shots from the GOP playbook.

Personally, I like Obama's line of attack on Clinton. It is subtle. It sets up a contrast without alienating voters. The average voter gets the gist of what Obama is hinting at, but is not turned off by it.

A final point. Strassel suggests that Obama and Edwards waited too long to start drawing some distinctions between Clinton and themselves. I could not disagree with this more. This was a line that a lot of pundits were repeating prior to the Philadelphia debate - when Obama signaled that he was going to start to sharpen his rhetoric. Many said that he had waited too long. That kind of thinking rests on the false premise that voters pay as much attention to politics as pundits do. They don't, which means that candidates have to save their sharpest, most effective stuff for when they begin to pay closer attention. On their last tour - (what's left of) the Who played their new garbage in the middle of the show. They saved "My Generation" for the end. The same premise applies to campaigns.

Obama would have been unwise to start drawing sharp contrasts in the summer. It's all well and good that his reticence allowed "Mrs. Clinton to build up such a sizable lead" - but, as I have argued time and again on this blog, leads in national polls of summer and even fall are not worth much because voters are paying little attention. If having a lead in mid-November's Gallup poll was Obama's goal - then, by all means, he should have amplified his rhetoric in August or September. But his goal is to win Iowa and then New Hampshire - and ratcheting up the rhetoric 40 to 50 days before those contests is the right move.

Remember that Giuliani just started advertising in New Hampshire. The Giuliani campaign is a smart operation - and those of us who pay an inordinate amount of attention to politics should take this "lateness" as a cue to change our timetable. Remember, we political obsessives have different levels of attention and information than the average voter. Successful campaigns are built around winning them, not us.

-Jay Cost