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Oppositional Behavior in the Presidential Contest

/ Published October 17, 2012

Is there a positive to negative campaign tactics?

The casual observer of American elections could be forgiven for seeing the current presidential contest as a race to see which candidate can paint the most flattering caricature of himself and make his opponent out to be the biggest buffoon, if not monster. The imperative to stay on message and to avoid unguarded moments that can be twisted beyond recognition—and to goad the other side into slipping up—is all about creating contrasts and rubbing out nuance.

Even though the overall picture isn’t pretty, it is in keeping with an electoral process that has kept this country going for more than two centuries, according to four Smith professors who study these things. “Most people aren’t political junkies or even all that interested in politics,” says Professor of Government Howard Gold, yet our system depends on them to referee epic struggles between powerful forces.

Professor of Government Marc Lendler teaches courses on the presidency, elections and the First Amendment. He doesn’t find it surprising, or even worrisome, that campaigns often revolve around casting the other side in the worst possible light. Seizing on perceived verbal gaffes and turning them into barely recognizable facsimiles of the words actually spoken is fair game in a system that relies on contrasts to give voters a clear choice.

Marc Lendler

The “you didn’t build that” quote Governor Mitt Romney’s camp ripped from the much longer and more complex remarks President Barack Obama made about the importance of infrastructure in facilitating commerce would not have won either side points in a debating society. But in the context of a campaign, they represent a sort of meta-truth. “They took a quote and twisted it in a way that didn’t exactly reflect his [Obama’s] meaning, but the underlying argument was right,” says Lendler, adding, “but it doesn’t seem to have made a bit of difference....The Republicans based their whole convention on that and their convention was a disaster.”

Romney’s underlying argument was that to Obama’s thinking “government plays a positive role in creating the basis for free enterprise,” according to Lendler. “The Republicans were right that the message he [Obama] was communicating was different from their message.”

Similarly, the relentless Democratic onslaught over the summer to equate Bain Capital, and Romney by extension, with greed and even economic treachery was in keeping with the idea that creating contrasts between candidates may inform voters’ decisions. “It’s absolutely fair game and it’s not unprecedented in American history,” says Lendler. “Candidates have to make their own coverage, their own breaks and their own luck.”

Donald Robinson, the Charles N. Clark Professor Emeritus of Government, observes that electioneering can be a “pretty darn brutal thing” in a democracy. “It’s like a jujitsu match in which you are trying to get under the other guy’s sash and throw him down.” Before mass media, supporters of one candidate or another ginned up rumor mills to undermine their opponent’s character.

Donald Robinson

Thomas Jefferson, a principal author of the Declaration of Independence, had several issues thrown at him: his atheism, and the accusation that he had a black mistress and fathered children from his relationship with an enslaved woman. “It was a very explosive charge. We now know that the charge was true, but in those days it was regarded as a scurrilous lie by Jefferson's fellow-plantation owners,” says Robinson. Many of our most revered historical figures were the target of attacks with little bearing on the policies they stood for, he adds, ticking off names like Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy.

In addition to studying and teaching American politics for decades, Robinson himself joined the fray in 1991 when Republican Congressman Silvio Conte died of cancer one month into his 17th term representing Massachusetts’ First District. Robinson ran for that seat in a crowded Democratic primary, which he looks back at as “a wild ride” and “a very instructive experience” that taught him the importance of having foot soldiers to mobilize voters. “I came up against the realities of financing and organizing a campaign,” he says, learning the hard way that showing up for debates and putting up some television ads isn’t enough, even if you think you are making winning arguments.

Like Lendler, Robinson doesn’t worry much about the negative tone of campaigns this year or the distortion of positions in which both sides engage. Subtlety is not a virtue when you are trying to get people to vote your way. Broad strokes and dramatic flourishes attract attention. “You’ve got to put the oats down where the goats can get ’em,” says Robinson, quoting a neighbor in Ashfield, the hill town north of Northampton where Robinson has lived and served in local government for many years.

According to standard political science theory, the Republican should be the favorite to capture the White House this year, says Lendler, who this fall is teaching the course Elections and the Political Order. Gold, his colleague in the government department, teaches a course with the same name. Between the two of them, they have 120 students using the current election as a textbook, as it were, for studying American politics.

The struggling economy would have predicted strong support for the candidate of the out party this year, says Lendler. He isn’t ready to call the race between Romney and Obama just yet, but since the Democrat is leading in many polls he believes something is going on besides what political scientists call “retrospective voting”—whereby the public rewards the incumbent party for a robust economy and punishes it when the economy is anemic.

Gold thinks the dogged obstructionism Republicans in Congress have practiced since Obama came to power has hurt what he calls the Republican brand. “That’s different from other elections,” he says; their hard line against compromise has weakened Republicans’ standing with many voters. He also points to a combination of Romney’s weakness as a candidate and the Democrats’ success in damaging his image over the summer. If a candidate’s strategy is to turn out his base rather than appeal to the middle, then energizing one’s natural supporters is especially important. “If the campaign is going badly, if media portrayals are consistently negative, that takes a toll on even the most enthusiastic or rabid supporters,” says Gold.

Donna Robinson Divine

Donna Robinson Divine, the Morningstar Professor of Government and director of Middle East studies at Smith, is observing how foreign policy might be influencing the election. In that area, Divine doesn’t see a lot of successes Obama can point to. “He entered office with three grand ideas,” she says. The first was that easing tensions between Israelis and Palestinians was central to improving American relations in the region. The second was that by signaling more support for the Palestinians he could “reset relations with the Middle Eastern world.” Finally, he thought that “engaging Iran and providing incentives to reenter the global economy and global society would dampen its interest in gaining the capacity to become a nuclear power.” As far as Divine can discern, Obama has fallen short on all three prongs.

“Whether that matters in an election, I don’t know,” she says, but it is notable that Obama is leading in the face of a weak economy at home and a lack of significant achievements abroad. She attributes Obama’s success as a candidate in large part to his opponent’s timidity. “My sense of Romney is he’s trying to run as if he was applying for CEO, giving people enough to know what his big goals are but not too much detail.”