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.