Neg­a­tive cam­paign­ing

The Covington News - - Opinion -

It seems the Re­pub­li­can pres­i­den­tial pri­mary is wind­ing to a close with the stars align­ing be­hind the ul­ti­mate can­di­dacy of Mitt Rom­ney to take on Pres­i­dent Obama in the gen­eral elec­tion. Don’t you think it’s time for a nice, deep breath? All to­gether, now: In­hale the pure, fresh air of these cool morn­ings and ex­hale all the pol­luted air filled for these many months with bit­ter­ness, ran­cor, ug­li­ness, pet­ti­ness and deadly dares more be­fit­ting a prison yard brawl than a con­test lead­ing to the door of the White House.

Ari­zona Sen. John McCain, a veteran of pres­i­den­tial cam­paign­ing, has called this elec­tion sea­son the “nas­ti­est ever.” The Washington Post re­ports more than 50 per­cent of all po­lit­i­cal ad­ver­tis­ing this year has been neg­a­tive, and su­per PACS have spent 72 per­cent of their funds on neg­a­tive ads. Fox News has cited “new lev­els of name-call­ing” in this year’s con­tests.

The Seat­tle Times web­site re­ported on a poll re­leased Wed­nes­day by the non-par­ti­san Pew Re­search Cen­ter that found Re­pub­li­can can­di­dates have seen sharp in­creases in un­fa­vor­able rat­ings as a re­sult of cam­paign ads thus far. The re­sults are based on a se­ries of ques­tions asked four times since Novem­ber. Then, for ex­am­ple, Mitt Rom­ney had a 36 per­cent fa­vor­able rat­ing and a 42 per­cent un­fa­vor­able rat­ing. To­day, only 29 per­cent of those polled give him a fa­vor­able rat­ing, while 51 per­cent give him an un­fa­vor­able rat­ing. (Pres­i­dent Obama, mean­while, has seen a 15 per­cent jump in fa­vor­ables in this time pe­riod and to­day has a 56 per­cent to 41 per­cent fa­vor­able/un­fa­vor­able rat­ing. He, of course, hasn’t been sub­jected yet to the sort of re­lent­less neg­a­tive at­tacks the Re­pub­li­can can­di­dates have en­dured. In­ter­est­ingly, four years ago while cam­paign­ing against Hi­lary Clin­ton, Obama en­joyed the same rank­ing in fa­vor­ables. Clin­ton stood at 50 per­cent, and Mccain 45 per­cent).

I would like to be­lieve that no can­di­date in his or her heart of hearts re­ally wants to run a neg­a­tive cam­paign, but enough po­lit­i­cal con­sul­tants must in­sist that it works so ev­ery­one does it. I also know that we are not fin­ished with neg­a­tive cam­paign­ing. It will rear its ugly head again and of­ten in the Demo­crat vs. Re­pub­li­can match-up af­ter the sum­mer’s con­ven­tions.

Philip Free­man is a pro­fes­sor of clas­sics at Iowa’s Luther Col­lege, a four-year lib­eral arts col­lege. He has trans­lated and writ­ten an in­tro­duc­tion for “How to Win an Elec­tion: An An­cient Guide for Mod­ern Politi­cians,” pub­lished by Prince­ton Univer­sity. The Wall Street Jour­nal re­cently ran an ex­cerpt call­ing it “Dirty Tricks, Ro­man-style.”

Free­man writes of the “bit­ter and volatile cam­paign” of 64 B.C. when a guy named Mar­cus Tul­lius Cicero was run­ning for Ro­man con­sul. “Can­di­dates com­peted to por­tray them­selves as the true con­ser­va­tive choice, while vot­ers fret­ted about the econ­omy and war threat­ened in the Mid­dle East.” Cicero was con­sid­ered a “bril­liant man and a gifted speaker,” but he had a brother named Quin­tus who thought Mar­cus could use some coach­ing to win.

So Quin­tus put his thoughts down in the form of a pam­phlet, as Free­man tells it. “My dear Mar­cus, you have many won­der­ful qual­i­ties, but those you lack you must ac­quire, and it must ap­pear as if you were born with them… since you have so many po­ten­tial en­e­mies, you can’t af­ford to make any mis­takes. You must con­duct a flaw­less cam­paign with the great­est thought­ful­ness, in­dus­try and care.”

Tips fol­lowed: “Prom­ise ev­ery­thing to ev­ery­one.” Quin­tus be­lieved the best way to win an elec­tion was to tell the vot­ers what they wanted to hear. Peo­ple, he said, will be much an­grier with a can­di­date who re­fuses to make prom­ises than with one who, once elected, breaks them. Also: “Flat­ter vot­ers shame­lessly.” Quin­tus told Mar­cus “You can be rather stiff at times. You des­per­ately need to learn the art of flat­tery — a dis­grace­ful thing in nor­mal life but es­sen­tial when you are run­ning for of­fice.”

“Give peo­ple hope,” Quin­tus sug­gested. “The most im­por­tant part of your cam­paign is to bring hope to peo­ple and a feel­ing of good­will to­ward you.” Free­man’s trans­la­tion con­tin­ues: “Vot­ers who are per­suaded that you can make their world bet­ter will be your most de­voted fol­low­ers — at least un­til af­ter the elec­tion, when you will in­evitably let them down.”

And fi­nally: “Know your op­po­nent’s weak­nesses — and ex­ploit them.” Free­man writes that “Quin­tus prac­ti­cally in­vented op­po­si­tion re­search.” Per his trans­la­tion, “A win­ning can­di­date calmly as­sesses his op­po­nent and then fo­cuses re­lent­lessly on his weak­nesses, all the while try­ing to dis­tract vot­ers from his strengths.”

Per­haps thanks to Quin­tus, Mar­cus Cicero won his elec­tion and served the repub­lic ad­mirably through a time of cri­sis, earn­ing an hon­orary ti­tle as “fa­ther of his coun­try.” How­ever, it didn’t keep him from be­ing mur­dered by Mark Antony in 43 B.C.

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