High Praise for Low Blows

David Mark on negative campaigning and the accidental benefits of campaign finance reform


"It's a lot like porn," author David Mark says of negative campaigning—and he means that in a good way. As a political journalist and former editor-in-chief of Campaigns & Elections magazine, Mark has watched vicious attack ads take down many an aspiring politico. But instead of bemoaning the low blows struck in the name of electoral politics—from Swift Boat slanders to friend-of-terrorist-smears—Mark is convinced negativity is a distinctly positive feature of U.S. elections.

Like pornographers, Mark argues, negative campaigners have seized emerging technology to reach their audience, bypassing gatekeepers to reach voters directly. The result, he claims, is a more rich, if less genteel, conversation. In Going Dirty (Rowman Littlefield), coming out next month, Mark lays out and defends the modern history of negative campaigning, from1928 attacks on presidential nominee and "rum-soaked Romanist" Al Smith to less-than-subtle images of Osama Bin Laden in 2004. Assistant Editor Kerry Howley spoke with Mark in Washington D.C. in February.

reason: Why does negativity get such a bad rap?

David Mark: People are used to commercial advertising, where it's really difficult to go negative. You have regulatory bodies like the Federal Trade Commission. There is a lot of incentive to stay positive because you don't want to drive people away from the product entirely. But the goal of political campaigns is entirely different. It's not to bring out as many people as you can to vote. It's to bring out a very selected group and in many ways you do want to diminish the turnout of people coming to buy your product. When a negative commercial comes on interspersed between commercials for restaurants and laundry detergents, it really stands out.

reason: What's over the line in 2006?

Mark:Not much. I think you still want to be careful with somebody's religion. Until recent history, religion was fair game. JFK in 1960 had to fend off questions about his Catholicism. But that really backfires on people now. A good test case in 2008 will beMitt Romney [Mormon], the governor of Massachusetts.

In the Florida Senate campaign, Bill Nelson, a Democrat, is being opposed by Katherine Harris. Probably some of the ads will focus on her physical appearance. Hillary Clinton will undoubtedly face the same thing in 2008.

reason: Campaign finance reform was supposed to curtail negative tactics.

Mark: Which speaks to the utter futility of campaign finance reform. All McCain-Feingold did was drive the big money away from the political parties to unregulated groups who were willing to say anything. Outside groups are willing to make charges that campaigns themselves might not want to be associated with. They go much further, they're much nastier and meaner.

With campaigns you're really going for the swing voters, people who have not made up their minds. Outside groups aim to hardcore supporters who already know who they like and dislike and just want to make sure they show up on election day. Just to make sure they actually cast a ballot.

People who want to contribute big money to politics have a lot of dough to burn. They're not just going to sit on their hands because one avenue is closed off. The money is going to find its way in. So money went into the arms of people who are willing to say anything. The Swift Vets for Truth leveled some of the harshest charges at Kerry that the Bush administration didn't want to be associated with. It's a good example of how you can have an outside group do your dirty work.

reason: Which you claim is ultimately positive.

Mark: It is positive to put everything out there and let it be rebutted. Counter ideas with more ideas. Outside groups are willing to put on the record things campaigns themselves aren't, and I think it's best for voters to have as much information as possible about their elected officials and decide for themselves. We live in a great age for negative campaigning because any charge can be rebutted in real time on the internet.

reason: But many of the campaign ads you reference aren't about ideas so much as they are about playing on fears and prejudices—implying that a candidate is homosexual, exploiting racial tensions, playing up fears of a terrorist attack.

Mark: I agree that campaigns often play on those fears. But in this age of the Internet, blogging and myriad information sources, it is up to individual voters to figure out for themselves of the nasty, mean charges against candidates are accurate or not. For every strong opinion critical of a certain candidate, there are counter-opinions and disagreements easily accessible on the Internet.

It's a great equalizer. During the 2002 Georgia governor's race, the incumbent democrat Roy Barnes seemed pretty much invincible, widely popular, had a huge campaign war chest. His republican opponent Sonny Perdue only had a fraction, about 1/6 of the money but with some ingenuity they created this DVD that they sent around to supporters and journalists and posted on the internet that labeled the governor a rat. It pointed out a couple of issues that people might not have known about very much. The governor's views on education policies and the Confederate flag. Whatever you think of the policies, it really brought out in a very cost effective way some things people didn't know about the governor. And it just shows, if you have the issues on your side, you don't need that much money. You can really hit at an opponent and be very effective.

reason: Are Republicans more likely to go negative?

Mark: I think the Republicans are often more effective at it. They do their research. They know which emotional hot buttons to push—guns, abortion, affirmative action. Democrats aren't as willing to go for the jugular.

reason: Is there a politician who stands out as a phenom of dirty tactics?

Mark:Jesse Helms, Senator from North Carolina, was a master of negative campaigning. He was never wildly popular in his home state, he would usually win by 51, 52 percent of the vote. But he knew how to get ahead, how to get that edge. He was really good at manipulating the media. He was a soundbite artist. It's ironic because a lot of people think of him as an old time reactionary lawmaker. But technically he was really on the cutting edge.

reason: Immediately after 9/11, negativity was off limits. How did that moment of nonpartisanship disintegrate?

Mark:It's an interesting dynamic, a slow creep. From complete nonpartisanship and civility on capitol hill to utter partisanship and negativity based on national security issues. For the first three or four months there was a real freeze on capitol hill. Four months after 9/11, Karl Rove called a meeting of the Republican National Committee that the GOP planned to run on terrorism issues in the 2002 midterm elections. Then some information came out that Bush may have had some warnings that there would be a terrorist attack on US soil. The Democrats started to push up the rhetoric. Another thing which seems small and trivial really ratcheted up the partisanship—The Republican National Committee started selling pictures of Bush on 9/11 to show how resolute he was. A lot of Democrats thought that was in very poor taste.

What really tipped it off was the US senate race in Georgia where Max Cleland, triple amputee, war veteran from Vietnam, war hero, ran against Saxby Chambliss, the Republican congressman. Chambliss ran an ad blasting Cleland for his stance on the Department of Homeland Security; at the beginning of the ad were images of Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. Nowhere in the ad did it compare them; all it did was show images. The Democrats got up in arms about this and said it was comparing Cleland to these notorious international villains. When in fact it did not. The text of the ad was "America faces great terrorist threats." And the ad showed what those threats were.

By the 2004 election cycle people were doing this all the time, saying candidates were in league with terrorists, were not going to protect the homeland. With some hindsight that was completely timid and mild.

reason: What are campaigns going to look like in the future?

Mark: I think they're going to be increasingly individualized. The Bush campaign of 2004 pioneered what are called micro-targeting techniques. They were tailoring their campaign techniques to specific people based on information they got from private sources. How much they paid for their house, what magazines they subscribe to, what cars they drive. If they subscribe to a hunting magazine, you know they're into gun rights issues. The Bush/Cheney campaign was very good at targeting individual groups of voters through cable television commercials and web ads.

I think you're going to get negative ads that are more and more tailored to specific voters. Campaigns know how to bypass the media gatekeepers. And they can go directly to voters. Practitioners of negative campaigning have always been on the technological forefront. Political campaigns were among the first to use radio, television and the Internet for their own purposes. In many ways they helped these technologies go mainstream.

I liken it to pornography's effect on technology. The popularity of the VCR was driven in the early 1980s by the desire of people to watch smut in their homes, rather than having to go to a theater in public. Similarly many people were introduced to the Internet in the mid-1990s by the easy availability there of pornography.

reason: Do you have a favorite campaign ad?

Mark: In the 1968 presidential race Hubert Humphrey was running against Richard Nixon, and Nixon chose as his running mate Spiro Agnew, Republican Governor of Maryland, who had relatively little experience but was known as a dirty, hard-hitting campaigner. He was viewed as kind of a laughing stock even then. The ad simply had the words Agnew for Vice President? and the voice over was a man laughing hysterically. It gets louder and louder and louder and then veers off into a groan. I could watch that over and over again.