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Negative political campaigns: ultimate love-hate relationships?

During the recent statewide primary elections, negative political ads and tactics were well represented. The Charlie Ross/Phil Bryant and Gary Anderson/George Dale campaigns, in particular, were more than just negative — they were often vicious and personal.

Experts in political campaigning say the public should expect negative campaigning to ratchet up during the upcoming state general election and the presidential elections. The high stakes, current affairs and “blog power” are setting the stage for good old-fashioned mudslinging and attack ads.

What is it?

So, what exactly is a negative political campaign? In the broadest sense, negative campaigning is when a candidate, rather than tout his or her own attributes and/or beliefs, focuses on the personality, attributes and/or philosophy and actions of the opponent.

These type campaigns can often include personal attacks, meant to undermine or destroy a candidate’s character or reputation. And these tactics can sometimes play within the gray area of the truth. For Dr. Steve Shaffer, that is where he draws the line for his definition.

“If the intent is just to inform the public about an opponent, and if there is truth behind what is claimed, then I don’t think that is negative campaigning,” says Shaffer, political science professor at Mississippi State University.

Dr. Allan McBride, associate professor of political science at the University of Southern Mississippi, agrees. He also draws the line at playing around the edges of the truth.

“I remember back when the original Bush was running against Michael Dukakis, and the Bush camp ran those ads showing the prisoners being rotated out of jail,” McBride says. “That was policy-oriented, but distorted.”

Ted Riemann is president of The Prime Time Agency, LLC, in Gulfport, which offers political campaign services. He says often it is the large firms that, watching polls and crunching numbers, get worried and kick the spin game into high gear.

“All advertising should be truthful,” Riemann says. “Often times a candidate is behind, time is running out, desperation sets in, and, like spaghetti, they just start throwing stuff against the wall and hope something sticks.”

Does it work?

It is widely debated whether or not negative campaigning works or not. Both proponents and opponents point to tons of research to support their position. The consensus seems to be that negative campaigning can be effective, when used in the proper context and situation. Get outside that, and it can mean political suicide.

McBride points out that, while the George H. Bush ads attacking Dukakis were somewhat distasteful, many feel that ad and others were keys to Bush’s victory as they mobilized the conservative/Republican base.

However, Shaffer remembers one time when negativism caused not only a candidate, but a whole party, the governor’s mansion. By the time the general election rolled around, folks apathetically stayed home.

“When Ray Mabus ran for re-nomination against Wayne Dowdy (in 1991), there was so much sniping and bad blood that I think everyone got disgusted with both of them,” he says. “It made it a lot easier for Kirk Fordice to win the general election.”

Interestingly, Riemann says candidates must be careful where they place negative ads even if they are a response to an opponent’s negative ad. He says it is important to respond in like media — if the opponent’s negative piece ran on television, the response should run only on TV.

The historical negative campaign examples given above were for state and national posts. When it comes to local elections, negative ads are a rarity. For one, local campaigns rarely have the funds to spend on promotion in general, and are loathe spending their limited funds on attack ads.

More than that, local voters do not like local candidates’ names sullied. Local voters may not be friends with a presidential or gubernatorial candidate, but they do know the woman running for tax assessor or supervisor, and attacking her is more likely to backlash on the advertising political campaign.

More of the same?

So, as state general elections approach and the presidential campaigning continues — and continues — can more negative campaigning be expected? The consensus answer seems to be yes.

McBride points out that the roots of negative campaigning in American politics run deep. At one point newspapers were openly Democratic or Republican, and pieces in those papers were often bitter and ugly.

“The headlines would read something like, ‘Evil Party Sending Us All to Hell” — stuff like that,” McBride says with a chuckle. “But most people that picked up those papers because they were affiliated with that party. They didn’t pick up the other paper because they couldn’t stomach what they said. So, they only got one side.

“With TV, it’s different. We’re inundated, and the message is reaching a broader audience.”

Bloggers are establishing themselves as a voice to be heard. Many, like 19th century newspapers, espouse a certain stance or policy, and have little time for opposite thinking. Candidates are displaying more and more sensitivity to blogging, which is a new and especially powerful medium to spread negative messages.

All talked to for this story forecast negative campaigning ahead both on the state and national levels. While Republican Gov. Haley Barbour seems fairly untouchable as far as attack ads go, Riemann says he would be surprised if Democratic nominee John Arthur Eaves did not go after Barbour’s ties to Washington “fat cats” and big business.

Republicans may run negative ads on Democratic candidates Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama in an effort to mobilize their party members. All interviewed for this story agree that negative campaigning will be seen not only from party to party, but candidate to candidate. How much negativism? That is a wait-see.

Perhaps McBride summed it up best.

“I believe the mindset is, if I don’t do it, my opponent will,” he says. “Negative campaigning has been around for ears now. It will never go away entirely.”

Contact MBJ staff writer Wally Northway at northway@msbusiness.com.

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