The New York Times headline today read, “Poll Finds Wide Obama Lead Despite McCain Attacks.” And I said to myself, “Poll finds wide Obama lead because, not despite McCain attacks.” While political attack ads are extremely effective in some campaigns, they are by no means a guarantee to improved polling numbers. And can backfire if done badly.
It got me reflecting on the psychology of politics and political campaigns.
The choice to “go negative” is usually an easy one. There’s a few decades worth of political campaigns that have given political operatives significant insight into what “works” and what doesn’t. That is, what’s effective in moving poll numbers (and therefore votes on election day), and what’s not so effective.
The problem with “going negative” is that it doesn’t always work. And I suspect that has a lot to do with the specific claims made against the other candidate and what kind of election it is.
For instance, negative campaigning tends to work really well in local and state elections when a candidate can specifically tie their opponent to enough negatives that it gets people’s attention. “Senator JimmyBob voted to kill baby deer in the local woods; why would you vote for someone like that?”
But it’s a harder proposition when your negative campaign isn’t specific and instead just makes general accusations that can neither be proved nor disproved. The Swift boat attack in 2004 against presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry was effective because it was specific. The half-hearted attacks McCain is hurling toward Obama are broad, general, and sometimes of questionable historical significance. Who hasn’t associated with people in their past that they now regret? Practically everyone. To draw some sort of connection between Obama and a past acquaintance is reaching, at best.
Especially in time of upheaval and uncertainty, I believe voters are less open to the politics of attack and negativity. They want a leader with solutions, answers and a positive vision. Not someone who is constantly seen simply attacking his candidate’s vision and ideals. It’s one thing to keep repeating the mantra, “Well, I have the experience, my friends.” It’s another to back it up with the actions of your entire campaign to illustrate how you’re going to use that experience in a positive manner.
One also can’t help but question that experience and judgment when, instead of choosing far more qualified vice-presidential candidates, one chooses someone who is inexperienced and divisive. McCain’s vice-presidential choice also hasn’t really added much to the national dialogue or (intelligent) conversation about how we’re going to get out of this economic and Iraqi quagmire. Instead, we see political rallies where Obama is personally disrespected, called a “terrorist” and a “traitor,” and where the audience is so mis-informed and ignorant, they actually believe he’s Islamic or a Muslim.
A decade ago, both my wife and I would’ve seriously considered voting for McCain, the “straight-talking” independent politician. But since those 10 years have passed, McCain has lost his way and his own vision and independence. Instead of being a “maverick,” he is a perfect example of everything wrong with old-school politics today — a visionary who simply spent too much time in his party listening to others who think they knew better than he. That’s too bad, because at one time McCain really was the person he still tells people he is.
So it wouldn’t be much of a leap to suggest that Americans are turned off not despite his negative campaigning, but because of it. He’s gone negative in a way that has done little to illuminate any real issues or concerns with Obama (other than innuendo). And he’s shown how little he understands how serious most Americans view the current economic and Iraqi situation, while he and his vice presidential candidate focus on things that happened 30+ years ago.
In September, we reviewed McCain’s and Obama’s records in relation to mental health issues and found Obama came out slightly on top. A month later and we still haven’t heard anything to change our mind. So given that record and Obama’s clear plan to end the war in Iraq (a tragedy of epic proportions, not dissimilar to Vietnam), we firmly and whole-heartedly endorse Barack Obama for President.