TOPICS > Politics

Going Negative

February 22, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT


MARGARET WARNER: We get four perspectives on negative campaigning. Kathleen Hall Jamieson — dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania; David Gergen — a former advisor to Presidents Nixon, Reagan, and Clinton — he now teaches at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government; and two pollsters who’ve been involved in presidential campaigns: Republican Linda Divall, who advised the Dole campaign in 1996, and polled for Elizabeth Dole this season; and Democrat Doug Schoen, whose firm polled for the Clinton campaign in 1996. Welcome all.

So David Gergen, how negative have these campaigns become?

DAVID GERGEN: Well, this particular campaign I think started out on a loftier level than perhaps some of the past campaigns, but it’s descended rapidly as your clip from the Apollo Theater last night just showed and indeed as we all saw in South Carolina and we’re now seeing in Michigan. It’s not that all negative campaign is bad. There is negative campaigning, which is fair, which is above the belt. Calling somebody else’s legitimate questions into the open is I think fair. It’s below-the-belt negative campaigning that is troublesome and that is so discouraging to voters.

MARGARET WARNER: David, would you call this above or below-the-belt negative campaigning – what we’ve seen so far?

DAVID GERGEN: I think what we’re seeing out of Michigan when there are phone calls going to voters calling George Bush anti-Catholic, a man whose younger brother is Catholic, a man — the governor of Michigan — his best ally in the state — John Engler — is Catholic — I think it’s below the belt. Phone calls from Pat Robertson calling John McCain’s campaign manger, Warren Rudman a vicious bigot is below the belt. So, it’s happening on both sides unfortunately. And we saw it massively in South Carolina.

Usually the below the belt stuff is also below the radar screen for television. It’s a little hard to pick up. It’s usually done through telephone calls and through other sort of means that are very, very hard to pick up. But I can tell you, I just did a radio show in Michigan an hour or so ago and the host said rumors were flying around there left and right, fast and furious, and they’re really manipulating the voters here at the last minute.

MARGARET WARNER: Kathleen Hall Jamieson, how do you think these campaigns stack up in the negativity – on the negativity meter?

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: The level of attack has been very high, but much of that attack is on issues that are consequential. Our concern ought to be about attacks that are untrue, that is attacks that might mislead voters. For example, the attack against McCain that suggests that Bush is the only pro-life candidate is a serious area that is being offered as misleading information. Their positions in this policy domain are virtually indistinguishable. They oppose abortion except for three exceptions, rape, incest, and the life of the mother. I agree with David the most problematic material is the material we’re hearing on the telephone where individuals are not only engaging in histrionic attack but in personal attack that is untrue. That’s the kind of attack that should be called negative. It’s also dirty. And the people who are offering it to the electorate ought to be ashamed of themselves and they ought to stop doing it.

MARGARET WARNER: Linda Divall, do you think there’s more of this under what David — under the radar or these phone calls – and I think the term push polling used to not to be widely known until this year. Now people in the public actually know what it means. Do you think there’s more, or are we just hearing it reported more?

LINDA DIVALL: I think we’re hearing it reported more. But I also hear that the campaigns are being very careful to stage a more positive tone through the airwaves. And they’re looking at the Internet, direct mail and phone banks to carry on a more precise message to try to tear down the opposition and not really spending time much time trying to increase their own favorability. The most damaging thing for McCain is that he went negative first by saying that George Bush twisted the truth like Bill Clinton, that caused serious repercussions for the McCain campaign in South Carolina.

But I think what might be happening in Michigan, we’ll have so see how close this race turns out to be. From all indications, it was dead even. It would appear that perhaps George W. Bush is paying consequences for the negativity in South Carolina in Michigan. It will be interesting to see how many Catholics, union members or Democrats turn out to vote. A

nd I think in the Republican Party we’re in a very critical situation right now because McCain people right now are drawing new people into the process. That is good. If this negativity continues, Republicans have to be worried are we alienating those people that seem to be attracted to McCain’s message — Democrats, younger voters, enough voters, veterans who have participated in Republican primaries for the first time. Those are some of the unintended consequences you need to look out for.

MARGARET WARNER: Doug Schoen, clearly these candidates and their managers think negative campaigning works or attack campaigning works. Are they right? Does it always work?

DOUGLAS SCHOEN: Well, it doesn’t always work, but it works quite frequently. And, indeed one of the tricks that really hasn’t been discussed all that much is running a negative campaign, which both campaigns to a greater or lesser extent are, but maintaining in the voter’s mind that you are the positive candidate.

Why Bush succeeded in South Carolina was he ran a very strong negative campaign, as has been discussed by the other panelists but he managed to maintain the high road. And McCain, who pulled his negative ads – for the reasons that were described — this nonetheless was seen as the unfair negative campaigner. So he had the worst of all possible worlds. He swore off negative ads, and he was perceived at negative campaigner.

MARGARET WARNER: So David Gergen, why do you agree they do often work and if so, how? You’ve been inside campaigns, is it to help your own candidate? Is it to tear down the other? I mean, how does it work?

DAVID GERGEN: The primary objective in negative campaigning is to drive the negatives up for the other side. Someone like John McCain went into South Carolina with very high favorable ratings, many people didn’t know him very well. His favorable ratings were very high; his unfavorable very low.

The Bush campaign and particularly its surrogates, its allies in the right-to-life movement, its allies in the religious movement and its allies in the tobacco movement really went after McCain in a very tough way, in a very comprehensive way and they drove his negatives straight up so that many, many Republican voters who might otherwise have considered McCain got off it, and they decided not to vote for him. And now we see in Michigan some efforts with some people allied with McCain to do the same thing with George W. Bush to by calling him anti-Catholic.

That’s the main purpose of negative campaigning, but it does — in effect, it tilts the board so that it not only drives the other guy’s negatives up, but it also — if the other guy has a very strong message, as in South Carolina, they knocked McCain off message because suddenly the conversation became not about the kind of changes that McCain wanted to do but about the tactics in the campaign.

That last debate which Terry Smith showed pieces of in South Carolina with the Republicans was much more about the negative tactics and knocked McCain entirely off message. It was very successful on the part of the Bush people.

MARGARET WARNER: Kathleen Hall Jamieson, if you ask voters, they say we hate negative ads, we hate negative campaigning. How do they really feel?

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: The most interesting finding from South Carolina was the finding that the person who attacked the most on the airwaves, that is, George Bush, was perceived to be the person who had run the less negative and more fair campaign. In a forthcoming book that’s called Everything You Think You Know About Politics and Why You’re Wrong, my colleagues and I have an explanation of this from the 1996 campaign.

What we found is this — that voters make a distinction between attack that is legitimate and attack that is illegitimate and they tag the illegitimate attack dirty and negative. But if attack is perceived to be fair and accurate, if it contains an argument for the candidate making the attack, as well as an argument against the opponent and, most importantly, if it’s perceived to be true, that attack is considered to be legitimate.

What George W. Bush managed to do in South Carolina was to tag McCain as the candidate who had attacked in personal terms the electorate disapproves of that — hyperbolic terms, the electorate disapproves of that-and with that flier to tag him as a candidate who said something that was untrue. In other words, he was engaging in dirty attack. Meantime, what Bush managed to do was to argue he was only responding, he was doing it by contrasting, and he wasn’t engaging in a personal or hyperbolic attack. In other words, he took the mettle of clean, legitimate attack. His problem now coming into Michigan is that the press contextualized all of those attacks after advice victory in South Carolina as perhaps more negative and perhaps more dirty than the voters did in South Carolina. Hence, we have an open question tonight, which is will there be a spillover from that press coverage, or will the perceptions of people in South Carolina be the perceptions of those of the people in Michigan?

MARGARET WARNER: So Doug Schoen, when you’re running a campaign and, heaven forbid, you may be thinking of doing some negative advertising, or something under the radar, to what degree do you take into account the factors Kathleen Jamieson talked about?

DOUGLAS SCHOEN: Kathleen’s summary was exactly right. In the ’96 Clinton campaign, for example, we were absolutely cognizant of the fact that we wanted to attack Bob Dole only on the issues, which we did. We tied him to Medicare, Medicaid, education and the environment and we made the case that the president had a positive agenda on those issues and ran what we call in the trade a comparative set of advertisements.

And by being factual, by being comparative and offering an alternative, we were credible. And, indeed, as Linda Divall knows too well, in the ’96 race, Bob Dole was perceived as the negative campaigner, notwithstanding the fact that most, if not all, the Clinton ads had some element of negative in them.

LINDA DIVALL: Well, Doug is absolutely right. The Clinton ads did have significant negatives in them, and they were very cleverly done. But I think the bottom line here is what you look for in terms of delivering an attack – is, number one — does your candidate have a favorable-unfavorable ratio to go into an attack and sustain an attack and deliver the message?

Number two, can you hold on to your core vote and, number three, can you have an impact on the undecided voters that are available to you? If those undecided voters, for example, are professional women, they may not be inclined to be very perceptive to what they believe to be a personal negative attack.

On the other hand, as Doug said and as Kathleen said, if they perceive it to be issue based and factual, then that is fair game. What is interesting right now, in Virginia, for example, is that George Bush has the response ad that he ran in South Carolina and McCain’s ad in Virginia – voters really don’t know that whole exchange, but Bush is very clever here — he is saying I now have you upper hand, McCain went first and gave me a tremendous opportunity today calling me a truth-twisting person like Bill Clinton, I’m going to take advantage of that. And I think in a Republican primary that’s a successful strategy.

MARGARET WARNER: Doug Schoen, but, of course, McCain is trying to make an issue out of the negative campaigning to generate a black lash. I know we’re all saying it would be fascinating to see what happens in Michigan? Does that work very often? I mean, do the voters really care?

DOUGLAS SCHOEN: Well, you know, usually the voters don’t care if the attacks are fair. And in South Carolina, McCain not only was off message, as I think David Gergen suggested, he lost his mantle of reform. And I think by getting the “Reformer with Results” message back on the table and by being perceived as an aggrieved candidate, McCain has apparently in Michigan in a way he didn’t in South Carolina generate more enthusiasm with the independents and with Democrats to produce an even higher proportionate turnout of those groups in South Carolina.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me just ask Linda this one quick question. Under what circumstances does a backlash develop?

LINDA DIVALL: If the ad is perceived to be unfair or an illegitimate attack it will have very negative consequences on a candidate who delivers it and it could drive counsel your vote and switch the undecided factor in a more significant way toward the aggrieved person.

MARGARET WARNER: David, you have time to get back in.

DAVID GERGEN: I just wanted to say I think we were been talking about what it does to the campaigns but I think it’s also worth asking what it does to the quality of our democracy. When negative campaigning becomes the dominating campaign, it wipes out the capacity to talk about the future, lowers the quality of discourse in an election and we seem to be heading down that trail very, very rapidly now. And looking ahead to the fall, we’re looking toward competitors probably who are really going to be going at each other hammer and tongue. And I think that raises serious questions about the fall campaign.

Beyond that, it also raise as lot of problems about governing. Negative campaigns tending to very, very polarizing. They discourage voters, they make the voter feel manipulated and belittled and it leaves the person who wins with an inability to really unify the country behind important national goals. And I think those are the larger questions posed by negativity that, it rises to the level that it wipes out everything else.

MARGARET WARNER: Kathleen Jamieson, do you agree with that – briefly, because we’re just about out of time.

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: When you’re contrasting an ad making a case for and against, you mobilize with take if it’s considered fair and accurate. However, when the attack environment escalates and you get over 90 percent attack, we can show from our evidence in this book that you demobilize the electorate. Too much attack is bad; contrast is good. As long as it’s accurate, it mobilizes.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Doug Schoen, you want to say something briefly?

DOUGLAS SCHOEN: I think David Gergen is half right. I think he is certainly correct that we will polarize America if we have a nonstop negative campaign and that is probably bad for democracy. It isn’t bad for the democracy if real philosophical differences between two candidates, or two parties are aired, and I think we have a chance in the fall to have a clear statement of Democratic and Republican philosophy that may be in the short term will benefit the democracy.

LINDA DIVALL: I think if you look on the Republican side, turnout has been exceptionally large both in New Hampshire and in South Carolina — a lot of first time voters and new voters, almost 600,000 people in South Carolina. I think voters are saying we want to see you two fight, fight fairly, show us what your differences are to make sure that we have the best nominee in the fall. So, I’m not certain it’s been quite so negative in that regard in terms of suppressing turnout is what we might have expected.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, they’re certainly seeing that fight. Thank you four very much.