Sunday, October 26, 2008

Why Must They Be So Negative?

Every election season, voters decry negative advertising, and campaigns continue to sling mud. The reality is, negative campaigning is nearly as old as the Republic, and rightly or wrongly, it serves an important function in our electoral discourse.

A strategic campaign makes sure that its opponent defines itself and its opponent first. They want to set the tone of the campaign and (positively) control their image to the fullest extent possible. And they want the opponent to have to be on the defensive for the entire campaign if at all possible. Negative campaigning (when done well) allows candidates to emphasize their strengths and their opponent’s weaknesses.

It is important to keep in mind that negative campaigning is broad term which encompasses both fair and unfair critiques of candidates. Candidates have a right, even a responsibility, to contrast their strengths and weaknesses with their opponents. If one candidate takes position A on a particular policy, while his or her opponent takes position -A on the same issue, voters should know the difference and what the implications of those differences are, and sometimes, those differences must be portrayed starkly if not harshly in order for people to understand.

Voters no doubt get the most queasy when the attack moves from the substantive to the personal. One can easily defend the idea that you shouldn’t spread false rumors about your opponent or dig up dirt about what they did in fifth grade (though such things do happen in campaigns). However, pointing out some character flaws that might be relevant to the question of a candidate’s ability to govern are arguably fair game. The Bush campaign did this humorously in 2004 with their windsurfing ad. Using John Kerry’s voting record (fairly or unfairly), they were able to successfully paint Kerry as being indecisive or unprincipled. In doing so, the campaign was able to undermine voter perceptions of Kerry’s fitness to be an effective leader.

There is some debate about the impact of negative campaigning on the electorate. Some, like Stephen Ansolabehere and Shanto Iyengar, argue that negative campaigning can mobilize strong partisans while compelling less partisan voters to sit out elections. Other political scientists dispute this claim, citing survey data that suggests that those who remember or complain about negative advertising still reporting voting at the same if not higher levels than those who were unfazed by negative ads.

This year’s election will no doubt be remembered for the negative ads (See examples below). While both campaigns have traded barbs, a lot of media attention has gone to the high proportion of negative Republican ads. These ads appear to have been less than effective this year, though. Why is that the case? There could be a couple of factors. For starters, the Republicans do not appear to have found an attack that resonates broadly across enough of the population for it to make a difference in voter preferences. Some voters can be riled up by William Ayres or Tony Rezko, but most are not moved, especially given the current financial crisis. In light of this crisis, the personal attacks may ring hollow.

Should Barack Obama win this election, someone will say that negative campaigning is dead because it did not work (for John McCain) in this election. That is likely very premature. Campaign operatives have been engaging in negative campaigning every since Thomas Jefferson and John Adams went at each other in 1800. Candidates have continued doing it for more than 200 years because they think it works. It is very unlikely that one election will put the final nail in the coffin of negative advertising.

For Further Reading:

Ansolabehere, Stephen, and Shanto Iyengar. Going Negative. New York, NY: The Free P, 1995.

Wattenberg, Martin, and Craig L. Brians. "Negative Campaign Advertising: Demobilizer
or Mobilizer?" American Political Science Review (1999): 891-99.

Race-Baiting, Campaign Style

Even when black candidates run campaigns in which they try to deemphasize race (See our post from three weeks ago), race often rears its ugly head in American political campaigns. While elections of yesteryear featured very explicit, virulent forms of racism, the most effective race-baiting of today is not an explicitly racist ad. Rather, candidates or surrogates will use coded language to implicitly prime voters’ subconscious racial fears.

In 2001 political scientist Tali Mendelberg published the book The Race Card, in which she outlines the practice of implicit priming. Because it is no longer socially acceptable to use explicitly racist language to rally voters (As we have seen with John McCain very openly challenging voters who proclaim that Barack Obama is perjoratively Arab), campaigns and surrogates opt for more subtle means to convey their point. They will use racial code words. More important, they use imagery to convey what words cannot express.

A classic example of implicit priming is the 1988 “Willie Horton” ad that aired in support of George H.W. Bush. The ad featured a menacing picture of a black convicted murderer, who under a Massachusetts’ furlough program during Michael Dukakis’ administration escaped prison and robbed and raped a white couple. The ad never once mentioned race, but the picture spoke a thousand words: If Michael Dukakis were to become president, black men would break out of jail and rape white women.

There are more recent examples of implicit priming as well. In 2006, the RNC ran an ad in support of Bob Corker, who was running against Harold Ford Jr.’ for the U.S. Senate seat in Tennessee. The most dominant and striking feature of the ad is a young, scantily clad blonde woman who talked about meeting Ford at a Playboy party and planning to meet up with him again. This implicit priming tried to paint Ford as a threat to white women and being sexually deviant.

The reason why implicit priming works is that it seeps into voters’ psyches unawares. Because the ads are not overtly racist, voters internalize the messages more readily than if the ads had been more forthright and said “Elect Dukakis, and white women will be raped!” or “Don’t elect Ford! He dates white women!” People would readily dismiss such statements as being racist and not factor those positions into their voting decision. However, they don’t readily dismiss a more subtly racist depiction unless someone points it out as racist.

The problem in both 1988 and 2006 was that the affected candidates or their surrogates took too long to condemn the ads as racist. As a result, voters had a chance to digest the ads as their producers had intended. Bush solidified his lead after the Horton ad aired, and Corker prevailed in a narrow victory against Ford.

This election season, Barack Obama has been the victim of explicit and subtle racial attacks. Both Democratic and Republican opponents tried to paint Barack Obama’s image as a foreigner, inexperienced, radical and a Muslim. Pictures of him dressed in foreign garb with a headpiece appeared on millions of television screens and newspaper covers. Surrogates reiterate his middle name, Hussein. By highlighting Obama’s connection of Obama to Pastor Jeremiah Wright or Minister Louis Farrakhan, they tried to frame the candidate as a racist, militant black extremist.

Obama seems to have learned the lessons of his forebears though. Instead of politely refusing to dignify such attacks, he has attacked racist rumors head on. From the March speech on race to his public defense of his wife, who has been called “Mrs. Grievance” and his “baby mama,” the Obama campaign has rightly defended itself. In doing so, it played good racial defense.

For Further Reading:

Mendelberg, Tali. 2001. The Race Card. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Gender and the Race: What Will Women Do Minus Hillary and Plus Sarah?

Women were given the constitutional right to vote in 1920, but we did not observe consistent, discernable differences between the voting behaviors of men and women until 1980. That year, women began to distinctly favor the Democratic Party in their voting choices, and this trend has continued into subsequent elections. When observing this trend and how it might operate in the upcoming election, it is important to consider the factors that have caused this preference of women for the Democratic nominee. And given the fact that the Republicans have a woman on the ticket this year, we must ask whether women are likely to support the GOP in greater numbers this year because of some sort of gender solidarity.

Democrats have held an advantage among women for the better part of thirty years in large part because the Democratic Party is perceived to do better on issues that are important to women. Women are still responsible for the majority of reproductive labor in this country, and thus, kitchen table issues such as education and health care tend to rank high on their lists of concerns. Democrats have long been perceived as the stronger of the two parties on this issue. Therefore, it would be rational for women who are concerned about these issues to vote Democratic. Moreover, women have historically been more opposed to military intervention than men. As such, the Republican Party’s advantage on national security issues have historically not resonated with women.

Although most candidates, both Democratic and Republican, avoid running on feminist issues such as reproductive and equal rights, Democrats have consistently held the more progressive stance on these issues. Women who are moved by these issues will be inclined to vote Democratic. Moreover, because women are also generally disadvantaged financially than men, they may be more receptive to the Democratic Party’s stances on economic safety net issues.

None of this should be interpreted to mean that women are alike. Women from different backgrounds and from different stations in life respond differently to political conditions and policy proposals. Recently, certain dissimilarities have been noted within the political behavior of women. The 2004 election exemplified the fact that women are beginning to have more diverse political outlooks, based on their distinct identities. Single women were more likely to vote Democratic, while married women were more likely to vote Republican. Educated women were more likely to vote Democratic, while blue collar women were more likely to vote Republican. The greater movement towards the Republican Party and the narrowing of the gender gap in recent election can be attributed to several things. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” strategy that reached out to women narrowed the gender gap from the election of 2000 to the election of 2004. The tragic events of September 11, 2001 also helped to narrow the gender gap, as suburban mothers were motivated by security reasons to migrate towards the Republican Party.

With less than a month before America will vote in the most historic election of the modern era, the reactions of women our current political condition are important to consider. Sarah Palin was chosen as the Republican vice presidential candidate in response to speculation that Clinton supporters would not vote for Obama, and this strategy was designed to appeal to working class white women. Palin’s ability to identify with the concerns and values of women in America might have an impact on the voting behavior of women in the upcoming election. In reality, it is unlikely that most Clinton supporters, especially the most ardent feminists among them, will disregard what they would perceive to be the antipathy that the Republican Party has shown for women’s issues and vote for the Republican ticket out of spite or even because Sarah Palin in the GOP vice presidential nominee. The fact that Obama has made a concerted effort to promote equal rights this year only further diminishes this likelihood.

For Further Reading:

Susan Carroll and Richard Fox (Eds). 2006. Gender and Elections: Shaping the Future of American Politics. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Anna Greenberg. 2006. “Moving Beyond the Gender Gap.”

Anna Greenberg. 2008. “Angry White Women.”

Anna Greenberg. 2001. “A Gender Divided: Women as Votes in the 2000 Presidential Election.”

You may also be interested in the following:

Kellyanne Conway. "Women Voters in the United States." E-Journal USA (US State Dept.)

Saturday, October 4, 2008

What Is Deracialization, And How Does It Impact This Election?

How should African American candidates try to reach out to white voters? Because of a legacy of racism in the United States, black candidates have historically faced difficulties convincing some whites to vote for them. Some voters will never be convinced to vote for a black candidate, but how does a black candidate win over non-black voters who may be able to be convinced to vote for a black candidate? Some candidates have resorted to a strategy called deracialization to maximize their crossover appeal.

Deracializtion is a campaign strategy in which black candidates deemphasize racial issues in their campaign, choosing instead to focus on issues that have a broad appeal. Charles Hamilton first recommended this strategy in the 1970's after Republicans won working class white voters who thought that Democrats spent too much time embracing civil rights issues. In effect, African American candidates should, according to deracialization theory, focus their campaigns on issues that can be seen as benefiting, unifying,developing platforms that appeal primarily to the African American community.

For all intents and purposes, Barack Obama is running a deracialized campaign. When Obama began his presidential campaign at the old state capital in Springfield, Illinois, Obama’s rhetoric emphasized such tenets as uplifting our economy, focusing on healthcare reform, revitalizing our education system, ending the War in the Middle East, and fixing the broken system of bureaucracy that defines Washington. These goals are not racially driven and were designed to appeal to all Americans.

While Senator Obama’s use of deracialized tactics has obviously been largely responsible for getting him within striking distance of being elected to the highest office in the United States of America, and arguably the world, we must carefully examine some of the ways in which his candidacy can be compromised by deracialization. Some blacks will be offended by his tendency to deal gingerly with racial issues. For instance, in an interview on "The Tavis Smiley Show" just after Obama's acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, Drs. Cornell West and Julianne Malveaux criticized Senator Obama for failing to explicitly mention Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.. They thought it was awkward at best and cowardly at worst for him to not mention King by name on the 45th Anniversary of the March on Washington.

Additionally, we have seen in this race and in previous races that deracialized strategies do not provide candidates from immunity from racial attacks. Harvey Gantt ran deracialized campaigns against Jesse Helms in North Carolina in 1990 and 1996, and Helms still primed white consternation over affirmative action to help him win.

On the whole, should Senator Obama indeed be elected in November, it will be fascinating to see how he addresses race. Does his deracialized campaign strategy mean that racial issues will not be a priority in an Obama White House? If he does not address racial disparities, will blacks be as enthusiastic about his reelection bid in 2012? And if he does address racial issues, will non-blacks abandon his political coalition? These are questions that only time can answer.

For further reading:

Charles Hamilton. 1977. "Deracialization." First World. March/April 1977.

Georgia Persons (Ed.). 1993. Dilemmas in Black Politics. New York: Harper Collins.