Former Politico senior editor David Mark, a longtime Washington, D.C., reporter, has moved to Silicon Valley for his new job as editor-in-chief of Politix. He is the author of Going Dirty: The Art of Negative Campaigning.
Q: Your book Going Dirty looks at negative political campaigning. How would you say this year's campaign compared with those of the recent past in terms of its negativity?
A: The 2012 presidential campaign was actually about average on the negativity scale. The Obama-Romney race wasn’t a gentleman’s contest, but it could have been a lot meaner and nastier. Romney’s Mormon faith, for instance, was scarcely an issue, in the primaries or the general election. And President Obama’s background, including admitted drug use and association with Rev. Jeremiah Wright, were largely vetted in 2008. Even in that race Republican nominee John McCain, against the advice of some advisers, refrained from campaigning on these types of personal issues.
When in 2012 the candidates did spar most aggressively, at the debates, it was mostly over substance. Particularly at the second, “town hall” faceoff on Long Island, N.Y., Obama and Romney went at each other over relations with Russia, trade with China, tax cuts/budget priorities and other matters. But these exchanges were largely over substantive, serious issues. That’s what democracy is all about, even if responses were at times reduced to soundbites.
Q: Over the past few election cycles, would you say that one party has been more negative than the other in its campaign ads, or would you say they both have been about equal? What are some examples of the most negative ads?
A: It’s been roughly equal, though each side has adapted technology in different ways to deploy negative tactics. In the 2012 presidential race Team Obama picked up on a tactic that had effectively been deployed against Democratic candidates – turning an opponent’s strength into a weakness.
Mitt Romney’s pitch to voters was largely predicated on his record as a can-do businessman/turnaround artist. Exhibit A was his long and lucrative career heading Bain Capital (as well has overseeing the 2002 Winter Olympics in Utah.) But in a series of television and web ads the Obama campaign undermined that image, painting Romney as a heartless outsourcer of jobs who kept his fortune in Swiss bank accounts and offshore havens in the Cayman Island. This television spot used Romney’s own off-key rendition of “America the Beautiful” to cast its indictment.
Romney never really came back with an effective response to the Bain attacks. In a sense he couldn’t, since his role heading the private equity firm was to return profits for investors. If jobs were created, that was incidental to his business mission. That’s a tough sell in a presidential campaign, and the Obama strategists knew it.
Historically, though, many of the best-known negative ads are associated with Republicans. A decade ago Georgia Republican Senate candidate Saxby Chambliss earned media scorn – but victory at the polls – for an attack ad against Democratic incumbent Max Cleland. Chambliss focused on national defense and homeland security during his campaign, emotionally raw issues a year after 9/11. Chambliss’s ad included images of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, highlighting Cleland's record on the issues of war and terrorism.
Chambliss received criticism from Democrats and Republicans for this ad, pointing out that he, who hadn't served in the Vietnam War due to receiving military deferments, had attacked a Vietnam War veteran who lost three limbs during his service for not being tough enough on issues of war and homeland security. Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona said of one ad, “It’s worse than disgraceful, it’s reprehensible.” Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska said the ads were “beyond offensive to me.”
Chambliss supporters said the ad did not question Cleland's patriotism, but rather his judgment. Whatever the motive, the ad served as a template for national security-infused themes of President George W. Bush’s successful 2004 reelection bid.
Q: How would you rate the “Swift Boat” ads that were run against John Kerry in 2004 in terms of their negativity, their accuracy, and their effectiveness?
A: This is a classic case of negative ads being effective because they weren’t responded to and rebutted quickly enough. The Kerry campaign clearly never expected that their candidate, a Vietnam hero, would be attacked for his military service. The “Swift Boat” ads came from outside groups, not the Bush-Cheney reelection team. And the Kerry team simply didn’t seem ready.
Initially it seems the Kerry campaign thought voters wouldn’t buy into such ludicrous charges. But the Bush-Cheney team had planned the 2004 as a “base” election. Its strategists came to the conclusion early on that very few voters were actually undecided on who to support. So the most effective route to victory was to mobilize and motivate likely backers to actually get to the polls and vote. The Swift Boat ads, run by Republican-affiliated outside entities, took advantage of this dynamic and ginned up the GOP base.
It didn’t matter that the ads were largely or wholly inaccurate. The bottom line was that John Kerry had served honorably in Vietnam and George W. Bush had not, though they were both in the same age range and eligible for military service.
Having said that, the ultimate responsibility fell to the Kerry campaign to respond to the Swift Boat ads. It’s strange that guys like Kerry, who have spent their adult lives planning to run for president, often seem ill-equipped for the ever-shifting nature of these campaigns. The big takeaway from the Swift Boat episode is that whatever campaign strategy you have planned, be prepared to toss it out at a moment’s notice in response to rapidly-changing events.
Q: Do you see an appropriate role for negative campaigning, and what do you see looking ahead? In your opinion, will negative campaigning increase, decrease, or remain the same?
A: Negative campaigning can be a positive force in American politics, if used to highlight issues candidates don’t want to discuss themselves. Candidates are in a sense like other job candidates – they tend to highlight the most favorable aspects of their background and experiences and gloss over – or skip entirely – the more unflattering elements. It’s up to the opposition to paint a fuller picture of their rivals, for the good of the voters.
I don’t think campaigns are getting meaner and nastier per se. But attacks are now amplified over Twitter, Facebook, 24/7 partisan cable, in ways that keep up the sniping almost constantly. LBJ’s infamous “Daisy” ad against Barry Goldwater, suggesting the 1964 Republican presidential nominee was likely to launch a nuclear war if elected, ran only once. Many people never saw it, only heard about it. Today ads are placed on YouTube and sent around virally tens of millions of times.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: After more than 12 years in the Washington, D.C. area, including the last six as a senior editor at Politico, I have moved to a new position in Silicon Valley. I am editor-in-chief of Politix, published by Palo Alto, Calif.-based Topix. The parent company is the largest local discussion forum in the U.S., with more than 10 million users. It’s 75 percent owned by an investment group of the newspaper giants Tribune, Gannett and McClatchy.
The company launched Politix in early 2012 as way of promoting discussion of national political issues. My job is threefold: 1) Oversee the site’s editorial content and team; 2) Strategize about growing traffic on the site; 3) Serve as the public face of Politix.
On that last point, I make frequent media appearances, as at Politico, and speak about current issues and political trends. Recently I was on CBS’s “Up To the Minute” and other appearances are on my website.
In September the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem had me over to speak about the U.S. elections and how that might affect the Middle East. And Nov. 24-Dec. 1 I’ll be in Lithuania and Finland, on a State Department-sponsored speaking trip. Topics will include the recent U.S. elections and why American focus seems to be turning away from its long-standing partnership with Europe. I spoke on similar topics in May 2012, sponsored by U.S. embassies in The Netherlands and Belgium.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: Casual observers of American political campaigns often seem shocked about what they view as the harsh tone of campaign rhetoric, television spots and other advertising. I think this is because it contrasts so sharply with other forms of advertising we’re accustomed to. When selling breakfast cereal, laundry detergent and other commercial products the purpose is to increase market share. So there’s an incentive to stay positive.
That’s not necessarily the case for political campaigns. The goal is often to get some voters – your own side – to the polls. And that means more targeted, often negative messages then are often on the airwaves. Moreover, there are restrictions to claims commercial marketers can make about their products. The Federal Trade Commission and other regulatory bodies can impose stiff fines and sanctions for false or misleading claims. There are no such restrictions in political advertising – virtually anything goes. That accounts for the difference in tone of ads during political seasons.
Interview with Deborah Kalb.