It’s been observed by other commentators that negative advertising in political campaigns wouldn’t be nearly so frequent if it didn’t work. Post World War Two political advertising has been heavy with negativism, at the very least since the Kennedy-Nixon campaign. However, there are contextual conditions required to make negative advertising a positive contributor to one’s electoral standing.
I’m not certain that these conditions have pertained to all the campaigns that have featured negative advertising as a major motif. However, in 2012, we can see certain patterns which I am reasonably certain must exist for contemporary attack ads to be effective.
The first of these, the specifics of which will vary from ad to ad, is an attachment point. The figure being attacked must already be associated with some institution or practice that a substantial fraction of the electorate already regards dubiously at best. For example, Mitt Romney, the prospective Republican presidential nominee, was for some years the principal player at a venture capital firm. Most Americans have little or no understanding of how venture capitalism works. As the Left has succeeded in smearing investment capitalism rather thoroughly, this little understood subcategory is easy to taint with accusations that have a surface plausibility, but that do not in fact address what venture capitalists really do.
The second requirement, which allows me to resuscitate an old word of historical significance, is a cat’s paw, or a group thereof. Think of the cat’s paw as a hired assassin: he will perform the actual violence, but provides a useful separation between the target and the client who designates the target and wants it destroyed. Today’s cat’s paws, given the Byzantine intricacy of campaign finance regulations, are likely to be political action committees, which are supposedly forbidden to coordinate with specific candidates and their campaign operations. An excellent recent example is provided by Priorities USA, which is currently under fire for its scrofulous attack on Mitt Romney, having accused him of indirectly causing the death by cancer of a steelworkers’ wife.
The third requirement, which actually gives rise to the second one, is plausible deniability on the part of the candidate himself. Believe it or not, there is a hunger in America for a far greater degree of civility in our political discourse, including our campaign tactics. Thus, a candidate cannot benefit from negative advertising unless he can posture himself as above it. When a candidate’s deniability fails him, he immediately looks petty, lacking the stature we expect of a high public official, and the thrust of the negative ads purportedly crafted to serve him turns against him. For this reason, we may expect the extraordinary negativity of recent attack ads against Mitt Romney to rebound disfavorably against the Obama for President campaign; it is no longer plausible that there has been no coordination between that campaign and its cat’s paws.
At all times during a political campaign, the associated strategists and analysts are doing their best to assess the effectiveness of their campaigns’ tactics. With less than 90 days to go before the election, it is certain that analysts for both campaigns are straining to determine the true impact of the negative ads filed by both sides to this point. Whether the current themes are perpetuated, and the negativity that characterizes them maintained or increased, will tell us a great deal, but not about the candidates themselves. Rather we will be learning about our own tolerance for attack politics – and about how sincere we are when we say that negative campaign tactics “turn us off.” I am not sanguine about the verdict.
[Dictated using Windows 7 Speech Recognition.]