By Scott Alessi
Personal attacks and slanderous accusations have become par for the course in the race for the American presidency. And as the 2008 election approaches, the severity of the character assassinations is only beginning to intensify.
Between Republican candidate John McCain's recent assertion that Democratic nominee Barack Obama lied about his ties to Bill Ayers, labeled a "terrorist" by the McCain camp, and Obama's criticism of McCain's involvement in the "Keating Five" savings and loan scandal of the 1980s, both campaigns have taken a negative turn.
But while many Americans may decry the strategy of disparaging one's opponent to win an election, history has shown that the tactic can help a candidate win over voters. In fact, the negative approach to campaigning is nearly as old as the presidency itself.
"Attack ads have been with us almost since the beginning," historian and author Thomas Craughwell told Our Sunday Visitor. "George Washington's campaign was 100 percent clean, but after that it got really ugly, so much so that the candidates were actually paying newspaper reporters to print the most scurrilous stuff about their opponents."
Beginning with the election of 1800, in which both incumbent John Adams and Thomas Jefferson spread vicious rumors about the other, candidates have often focused their attention on their opponent's personal flaws rather than their politics.
"We have always found a way to place personalities over issues," said Joseph Cummins, author of "Anything for a Vote" (Quirk Books, $16.95). "I think it is a lot easier for people to deal in slander, character assassination and wondering about people's personal lives than it is to really focus on the issues, which takes some serious study."
Cummins told OSV that candidates also resort to negative campaigning because history has shown it often leads to victory.
"For the most part, if you've got two presidential candidates and one is taking the high road and the other is taking the low road, then the person taking the low road generally wins," he said.
One reason for the success of negative campaigning is that voters often choose a candidate more with their heart than with their head, Craughwell said.
"Elections are more emotional and visceral than they are intellectual," he said. "When Ronald Reagan asked [in 1980], 'Are you better off now than you were four years ago when Jimmy Carter took office?' nobody sat down and pulled out their tax returns from the last four years to examine them. They just sat there on the couch and said, 'No, I'm not.'"
Cummins added that attack campaigns also work simply because people enjoy hearing about scandals, conspiracies and illicit behavior.
"I think it works so well with us because many of us really want to hear these things," he said. "It is more exciting."
In the 19th century, Cummins said, the attacks were often more malicious than in modern elections. The mudslinging in those campaigns was expected by voters, who viewed politics as almost a "spectator sport," he said.
"Even the most iconic presidential figures that we revere like Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln, they called them all sorts of really nasty names. And I think people got a big kick out of it," he said.
As a race enters its final stretch, negative campaigning tends to become even more prevalent as the candidates scramble to attract undecided voters at the last minute. And with the polls showing a lead for Obama, Cummins said that McCain's campaign may become even more aggressive.
"Now is the time to turn around and go after your opponent really viciously," he said.
John K. White, political science professor at The Catholic University of America, told OSV that while a candidate's personal characteristics always play a part in an election, the economic downturn may change the playing field.
"The character of the candidate matters, their persona matters and whether we share a candidate's values matters a great deal," White said. "But I think what's happening this time is that while character and values and persona matter, the issues do matter more because there is a sense that this country is in deep and serious trouble."
White compared the current election with that of 1988, in which Republican nominee George H.W. Bush blasted Democrat Michael Dukakis in series of negative campaign ads. The attacks proved successful, leading to a landslide victory for Bush, but White argued that such tactics may be overshadowed this year by the financial crisis.
"We were still, in 1988, a pretty happy and a pretty contented country, and in that environment those attacks on cultural values and on character have a resonance," he said. "That's not where we are right now."
By focusing more on the issues, White said, Obama has defended himself well against the negative attacks by the Republicans. White likened the situation to the 1980 election, in which Republican nominee Ronald Reagan was able to overcome similar attacks from incumbent Jimmy Carter.
"Carter's tactic was to make Reagan unacceptable. The thrust of his campaign was, 'you may not like me, but what about the other guy,' which is exactly what McCain is doing right now," White said.
"Once Reagan made himself acceptable in the debates, the election was over," he added. "And thus far, Obama is doing a pretty credible job of making himself acceptable."
Although many political pundits see negative campaigning as the only way to win in a major election, others believe that it is possible to be victorious without resorting to unsavory tactics.
Judy Nadler, senior fellow in government ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, Santa Clara University, said there is a "fine line" between aggressively campaigning on the issues and resorting to negativity.
"There is a difference that I think a lot of people don't understand between negative campaigning and a really hard-fought, tough race," she said. "You can have a very hard-fought campaign and speak truthfully about someone's record that is not negative. That's really about holding individuals accountable for their actions."
But in many cases, she said, candidates find it easier and more appealing to point out opponents' weaknesses rather than their own strengths. "But it does not have to be that way," she said.
Nadler said that candidates do have a choice when it comes to negative campaigning. She added that voters have the power to take a stand against mudslinging.
"This kind of negative campaigning only works if people respond to it in a positive way," she said. "The public has a right to say no to those kinds of things. They have a right to say 'We expect more of our candidates, and we're going to demand more of our candidates.' And I think that when that message from the public gets out, then we will see a shift."
Several presidential elections have seen candidates attack their opponents' views on Catholicism as a means of swaying voters:
1852: With the growing number of Irish immigrants making the Catholic vote important, the Whig party accuses Democrat Franklin Pierce of authoring a clause in the New Hampshire constitution banning Catholics from holding public office.
1856: Republican John C. Frémont, an Episcopalian whose wife was Catholic, is accused of being a "secret Catholic" who would reveal his allegiance to the pope if elected.
1884: Republican James Blaine is labeled a "Catholic hater" by the Democrats, despite his mother being a baptized Catholic and his sister being a nun.
1928: Alfred Smith, the first major party Catholic presidential nominee, faces numerous accusations from Protestants, including that he would outlaw reading the Bible, install the pope in the White House and annul all non-Catholic marriages.
1960: John F. Kennedy faces similar concerns from Protestants over his faith, even after assuring Protestant ministers that his faith would not play a part in his politics.
Source: "Anything for a Vote" by Joseph Cummins
Scott Alessi writes from New Jersey.