Photo of Bill Moyers Bill Moyers Journal
Bill Moyers Journal
Bill Moyers Journal
Watch & Listen The Blog Archive Transcripts Buy DVDs
Going Negative, Campaign 2008
Flag TV
Watch Video
Read Transcript
October 10, 2008

Some veteran campaign watchers say that during the last month of the race campaigns inevitably take a nasty turn. If that's true, the 2008 race is no exception. In the span of a week, the McCain camp has suggested that Barack Obama has ties to domestic terrorism and the Obama camp has responded with a lengthy commercial about McCain's involvement in the Keating Five Scandal. Both candidates vowed to make this the cleanest election ever. Will the race deteriorate into a calculated game of "I see your radical minister and raise you a problematic fundamentalist and questionable financial ties?" And if so, what effect does it really have on the voters?

What Defines Negative?

Of course there are many tactics in the American campaign play book. There is affirmative campaigning: "I, candidate X, will do the following in office." What most commentators view as negative campaigning is not pointing out where your programs differ from those of the opponent: "Candidate X says my program will cost jobs...that's not true because..." The bulk of negative campaigning rests on questioning the opponent's character and judgement. Is that questioning a dirty trick or valid tactic? All to often, the attack relies on innuendo, guilt by association and the well-honed art of insinuation.

U.S. NEWS & WORLD REPORT recently asked two political players what they thought of negative campaigning. Dick Morris defended the practice, and, in a seperate article, James Leach found it detrimental.

While not condoning falsities, Dick Morris contends that negative ads are a necessary tool in running a modern campaign:

Negative ads work and have their place. They are how the voters find truth in a morass of claims and counterclaims. With much of the media oriented toward the left or the right, negative ads are often the only way voters can penetrate the claims of the various campaigns and get the facts. Voters always tell pollsters that they hate negative ads, but politicians continue to run them. That's because the same polls show that they work. In a world with flawed politicians, we need negative ads; otherwise, we won't know candidates' defects until it's too late.
James Leach, while acknowledging that the nexus of money and politics makes American campaigns especially prone to negativity, still shuns the practice in even its milder forms:
Process is our most important product. Campaign reform should become a rallying cry for all who want to check the negative and rid politics of funding sources intent on putting candidates in a compromised corner. The duty of public officials is to inspire hope rather than manipulate fear. Whatever the issues, the temptation to appeal to the darker side of human nature must be avoided. The stakes are too high.
The Effects

Recent studies show mixed success for negative campaigning — it is as likely to harm the candidate using the negative message as not. However, a negative message that does find resonance can cut off a campaign in full stride. Research also suggests that who delivers the message has an effect on its success with voters. Chris Cillizza, writing for THE WASHINGTON POST, found that if there are 527 organizations to deliver the punches the candidates run less risk of a negative bounce back than if they resort to negatives from the stump. This was certainly the case in the 2004 election when "swift boating" became a verb — referring to the 527 campaign against John Kerry. In 2008, both McCain and Obama discouraged the formation of such 527s, and there are fewer on either side, though both conservative and liberal groups are expected to ramp up ads as the election nears. Thus the candidates and their traditional attack dogs, vice presidential candidates, are delivering negative messages themselves.

Research early in the campaign season found that Americans seemed increasingly unhappy with negative campaigning. The McClatchy Washington Bureau reported on some of the reasons for the change: "Information overload; A higher tolerance for misbehavior; Negative campaigning went too far in the past; The charges don't fit. If you're going to make someone monstrous, make sure that he or she looks the part"

Indeed, in several local elections both candidates have pledged not to "go negative" under any circumstances. But that hasn't had an impact on the recent presidential campaign strategies. Campaign watchers are calling it the most negative race in history — a charge leveled in nearly every election in recent memory.

The History

It is true that painting the opponent as a "bad character" has a long tradition. A rather peremptory article in the U.K.'s DAILY TELEGRAPH reminds Americans of this:
Enough already. Not with the negative campaigning, but with the bleating about this being the dirtiest, most dishonorable election ever....It's politics and it's always been this way in America.
True enough. Andrew Jackson's campaign was dogged by rumors that his marriage was less than legitimate. In addition, opposition papers printed numerous cartoons depicting what it would be like when the uncouth Jackson supporters came to the White House to collect their spoils.

Another signature episode in negative campaigning began with the campaign slogan, "Ma, Ma, Where's My Pa?", which referred to an illegitimate child acknowledged by candidate Grover Cleveland in earlier years — the other potential fathers were all married and Cleveland was not at the time of the birth. The attempt to paint Cleveland as too immoral to sit in the White House failed and his supporters soon added "Gone to the White House, Ha, Ha, Ha," to the slogan.

The post-war climate of fervid anti-Communism set the stage for another notorious incident — this one in the California Senate race. Richard Nixon literally colored his opponent as a fellow traveler. Helen Gahagan Douglas was referred to as "The Pink Lady" by Nixon's campaign, which also distributed a list of the times Douglas voted along with "leftist" Senators printed on pink paper. Nixon won the seat.

The advent of television advertising changed the potential audience for negative messages. Notorious among these, although only ever broadcast once, is the "Daisy Girl" ad from the Johnson/Goldwater race of 1964. The ad suggested that Goldwater was not to be trusted with a nuclear arsenal.

>View the JOURNAL's photo essay on the history of campaign advertising.

Another notorious negative ad campaign was launched during the 1988 race between George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis. Especially notorious is the "Wille Horton" ad, which played on racial fears while suggesting that, as Governor of Massachusetts, Dukakis had been "soft on crime."

>Watch the Willie Horton ad

Some campaign watchers are perplexed by the turn toward the negative by John McCain, considered the victim of one of the worst "dirty tricks" in recent political history. McCain, the frontrunnter, was defeated the 2000 South Carolina primary after opponents used "push polling," asking voters leaning towards McCain whether they were still willing to back him if they knew he had an illegitimate black child. McCain and his wife had adopted a girl from Mother Teresa's orphanage in Bangladesh.

So is this the most negative campaign in history? Maybe, until next time.

Do you think negative messaging has it's place? Talk back on the blog.


Kathleen Hall Jamieson is the Elizabeth Ware Packard Professor of Communication at the Annenberg School for Communication and Walter and Leonore Annenberg Director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Jamieson is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a member of the American Philosophical Society. She is the author, co author or editor of fifteen books including: UNSPUN: FINDING FACTS IN A WORLD OF DISINFORMATION, THE 2000 PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION AND THE FOUNDATIONS OF PARTY POLITICS, THE PRESS EFFECT and EVERYTHING YOU THINK YOU KNOW ABOUT POLITICS...AND WHY YOU'RE WRONG. During the 2004 general election, Jamieson regularly appeared on NOW WITH BILL MOYERS and THE NEWSHOUR. Photo by Robin Holland

Jamieson has long been interested in making sure Americans get beneath the veneer of politics and campaigns. Jamieson last provided users and viewers with debate-watching tips:

"I recommend not watching before the debate and after the debate. I recommend that after the debate you turn the debate off and you talk with your family about what you saw and what was important to you. And you think about what you saw."

Guest photos by Robin Holland

Published October 10, 2008.

Related Media:
GraphMedia Analysis
The JOURNAL takes an in-depth look at the news of the week to sort out the media-frenzied information available from what the public still needs to know.'s Kathleen Hall Jamieson and ON THE MEDIA's Brooke Gladstone dissect campaign coverage. (October 3, 2008)

GraphMedia Analysis
Media experts Brooke Gladstone and Les Payne take stock of how the media have fared in the 2008 cycle. Do political partisans on both sides prefer propaganda to the facts. (September 12, 2008)

GraphConvention Chat
Contributor Kathleen Hall Jamieson returns with a recap of the key moments and messages of the Republican National Convention. (September 5, 2008)

GraphThe Power of Words
Kathleen Hall Jamieson looks at the buzzwords and themes of the campaigns. (February 1, 2008)

YouTubePolitics 2.0
Bill Moyers talks with Kathleen Hall Jamieson about how the Internet has transformed the political campaign in the United States. (December 12, 2007)

References and Reading:
Campaign Seen as Less Negative than 2004 Contest
A February 2008 study from the Pew Center for the People and the Press.

"Is Negative Campaigning Good for America?" U.S. NEWS & WORLD REPORT, October 6, 2008
Veteran political insiders Dick Morris and James Leach take opposite views of the tactic.

"Smears are routine part of presidential elections" Toby Harnden, THE DAILY TELEGRAPH, Oct. 8, 2008.
A view from Britain on dirty campaigning in America. "Enough already. Not with the negative campaigning, but with the bleating about this being the dirtiest, most dishonourable election ever....It's politics and it's always been this way in America."

"Why Doesn't Negative Campaigning Work Like It Used To?" David Lightman, McClatchy Washington Bureau, Feb. 23, 2008.
A look a recent studies of voter behvior and early attitudes toward the 2008 campaign season.

"Without 527s, Candidates Must Carry Negative Message," WASHINTONPOST.COM, Chris Cillizza
Political commentator on the problem "swiftboating" in person plays for candidates.

Stefan Forbes new film documents the career of Republican party strategist Lee Atwater.

Fact Checking the Campaign is a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania that aims to monitor the accuracy of major national candidates' statements and rhetoric.

The Fact-Checker
Run by veteran journalist Michael Dobbs, The Fact-Checker is a project of the WASHINGTON POST that publishes research evaluating and providing background and context to candidate statements and popular political stories.

Politifact and Truth-0-Meter
Politifact is an extensively cross-referenced fact-checking resource run as a joint project by the ST. PETERSBURG TIMES and CONGRESSIONAL QUARTERLY.

Also This Week:

Bill Moyers talks with one of the world's most successful investors, George Soros, about the global capital meltdown, how he saw it coming, and what can be done now.

Bill Moyers checks in with JOURNAL contributor and director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center Kathleen Hall Jamieson on how dirty politics will play out in this final stretch to the election.

In this web exclusive essay, on the sixth anniversary of the congressional vote to grant President George W. Bush the power to invade Iraq, Bill Moyers looks back to October 2002 and the Senate debate over the rush to war.

Stefan Forbes' new film documents the career of Republican party strategist Lee Atwater.

Is the American Dream in danger during our financial downturn? Or is the American Dream now about something new? Our guests and our viewers speak out.

Add your voice to our election year map. Plus, get perspective on pressing election-year issues from JOURNAL guests.

Our posts and your comments
For Educators    About the Series    Bill Moyers on PBS   

© Public Affairs Television 2008    Privacy Policy    DVD/VHS    Terms of Use    FAQ