Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Will Minority Interests Get More Attention In A Minority President's Administration?

As the first minority president, how will Barack Obama handle minority issues? To answer this question we will first examine what the president's abilities are as president, what previous presidents have done to represent minority interests and finally what Obama will do to represent these interests.

The president of the United States implements the laws that Congress passes and the Supreme Court interprets. To implement laws, presidents issue executive orders and appoint Cabinet members whose offices oversee departmental regulations. And although the executive branch doesn't make the laws, it can also strongly influence policy through setting the agenda. Past presidents have used each of these powers individually to represent specific minority interests during their administration. Whether it was FDR’s executive order to forcibly remove Japanese Americans from the West Coast during World War II; or Truman’s executive order to integrate the Armed Forces; or George W. Bush’s appointment of the most diverse Cabinet in American history, American presidents have the power to make decisions of exceptional consequence for minorities.

Because minority voters are disproportionately Democratic, many would assume that Democratic presidents would be especially sensitive to their policy interests. After all, it makes sense that these presidents might want to keep these voters in the fold for the next election. Unfortunately, history shows that American presidents have not always honored the support of minority voters. Blacks were a key constituency in Jimmy Carter’s 1976 win. However, Carter offered minimal support for the Congressional Black Caucus’ signature policy initiative of the 1970’s: the Humphrey-Hawkins Act. This act was supposed to guarantee full employment. In part because Carter did not lobby for the act and in part because of the amendment process, by the time the bill passed in 1978, it was completely toothless. Many contend that as a result of Carter’s lack of advocacy on behalf of blacks, black turnout in 1980 waned, contributing to Ronald Reagan’s decisive victory that year.

Because President-elect Barack Obama owes so much of his victory to the high turnout among minority voters, it is essential for his administration to deal with issues of concern to these groups. As Clarissa Martinez de Castro of the National Council of La Raza says, "we can't say that the Latino vote decided the victory, but if it's added to the African-American vote they determined the destiny of the country. This support represents a commitment by Obama to Hispanic voters to address the issues that are important to this community: first, the economy and second, immigration reform." So, it can be argued that Obama owes it to minority groups to work on minority specific concerns. If he fails to represent Latinos, Blacks and Asian Americans, he risks losing their support and potentially their vote for re-election.

In the past Obama has given reason to believe that he will address minority issues during his administration. In November of 2007, Obama said that "when America gets a cold, black and brown America get pneumonia, and we've got pneumonia right now. … We're moving in that direction, and we've got to do something about it. We've got to strengthen our unions. We have to raise the minimum wage and make sure it's not every 10 years, but it's keeping pace with inflation. It's got to be a livable wage." If Obama continues with this mindset, he will put minority interests such as poverty, unemployment, minimum wage, immigration, health care and violence on his agenda.

Since being elected, Obama has already shown some evidence that minorities will be represented. He has already appointed four Blacks and a Latino to his senior advisory positions. This includes Valerie Jarrett as a senior advisor, Eric Holder as Attorney General, Susan Rice as the UN ambassador, and Melody Barnes as Director of the Domestic Policy Counsel. He has also appointed the Governor of New Mexico, Bill Richardson, as Commerce secretary.

The larger question, though, is not how many minorities fill key posts in his administration. Tokenism is not evidence of racial justice. Racial inequality is still a clear and present danger, and as long as a person’s race or ethnicity can help predict his/her income, educational attainment, life expectancy, likelihood of going to prison, etc., we haven’t completely overcome. No one is suggesting that President-Elect Obama ignore the economy or the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, or that those do not affect minorities. However, Obama, because he is a minority, is in an important symbolic position to be able to provide moral leadership on eradicating the vestiges of systemic racism. While no one can be sure as to whether Obama will represent minority interests or not during his administration, we can hope that the steps he has taken so far are evidence that minorities will not be given short shrift in his administration.

For Further Reading:

Lucius Barker, Mack Jones and Katherine Tate. 1998.African Americans and the US Political System. (Fourth Edition). Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall. Chapter 11.

Carlson, Laura. 2008. "Obama and the Minority Majority." Foreign Policy in Focus. 14 November 2008. Retrieved from 3 December 2008.

Greene, David. 2007. "Democrats Address Minority Issues, Each Other." NPR's Weekend Edition Sunday. [Radio Transcript]. Aired 2 December 2007. Retrieved from 3 December 2008.

Paula McClain and Joseph Stewart. 2006. Can We All Get Along? (Fourth Edition). Boulder: Westview Press. Chapter 4.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Was The Election Of Obama Really The End Of Black Politics?

Although there is much speculation to this debate, the logical answer is no. The integration of the new generation of Black politicians into the political spectrum marks a progression in Black political leaders, not the obliteration of the Black political agenda.

Like all debates, there are multiple perspectives on the significance of the election of a young, deracialized candidate such as Barack Obama to the highest office in the land. On the one hand are those who hope that Obama’s election spells the end of racism. On the other hand, some fear that Obama’s election prematurely forces the end of the race discussion, and that black politicians like Obama privilege their ambitions over delivering substantive change to black communities.

In his provocative New York Times Magazine article this summer, Matt Bai was the latest to chart the rise of a new kind of black politician, young men (mostly men) who grew up after the Civil Rights Movement and whose approach to race politics differs dramatically from some of their elders. Instead of identifying themselves lock, stock and barrel with the protest politics of their elders, these new leaders espouse moderate politics and have tremendous appeal among white voters.

The rise of this cohort of politicians is not without controversy. These politicians attract support from constituents with diverse agendas. Also, some worry that these politicians will assume the role of race leadership only to squander their opportunities to address racial inequality. As such, scholars such as Adolph Reed Jr. label them “vacuous opportunists.”

Part of the reason these new black politicians engender so much controversy is that one cannot look at their personal backgrounds to detect racial fealty. For older black politicians, their participation in the Civil Rights Movement and personal experiences with discrimination was clear evidence to some that they were committed to improving the lives of blacks. However, when young black politicians emerge from sheltered upbringings and integrated environs, some are suspicious that they do not identify enough with the racial struggle to be effective advocates against racial inequality.

In all honesty, we do not yet know how Barack Obama will address racial issues in his administration. And it’s important to note that Barack Obama is only one black politician. We should not judge an entire cohort by one man, and we certainly should not judge him as president before he has taken office.

However, there are a few things to keep in mind. While Obama’s election does spell change, it does not spell the end of traditional black politics. Older civil rights leaders will still have a platform, and they will continue to advocate for the issues they have always championed. In fact, black politics works best when black politicians and black protest leaders are both active.

It will be many years before we really know the impact of Obama’s election on minority politics. The new era of Black leadership, like any new entity, raises many unanswered questions. Are these new leaders apathetic opportunists out for their own aggrandizement, or do simply understand the essential to winning elections in order to help them further the Black agenda? This question might remain unanswered for years. However, one thing is relatively certain: Black politics will not disintegrate anytime soon; the entrenched Black leaders of the Civil Rights Movement will make sure of this.

For Further Reading

Bai, Matt. 2008. “Is Obama the End of Black Politics?” The New York Times Magazine. 6 August 2008.

Reed, Adoph. 2008. Obama No. The Progressive. May 2008.

Walters, Ronald. 2007. Freedom is Not Enough. New York: Rowman and Littlefield.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Who Won The Heartstring Vote And Why It Matters

Democrats are still basking in the glow of this month’s historic presidential election. As such, it is easy to forget that for the first half of this decade, Democrats were popularly perceived as the party that squandered opportunities to win office. The Republican Party won the presidency in 2000 (Florida debacle notwithstanding) despite the fact that the incumbent party had presided over the greatest economic expansion in American history. And despite the fact that Democrats were still bitter about 2000 in 2004 and that voters were increasingly skeptical of the war in Iraq, George W. Bush managed to win reelection in 2004. How does one party blow electoral chances like that, when the other manages to win improbable elections? Very simple. The GOP tugged at voters’ heartstrings while the Democrats bored them with statistics and logic.

Even though Democratic pollsters saw substantive advantages for their party, the Democratic candidates were unable to frame their issues in passionately communicable terms. Clinical psychologist Drew Westen, who used MRI technology to examine voters, found that emotion trumps reason in the political decision-making process. Based on this theory, it is no wonder that the Republican Party in all their emotional glory have dominated presidential elections during the modern presidency. The implications of this finding are not only retrospective, though, but rather prospective in their ability to guide the Democratic Party to future success. According to Westen, Democrats subscribed to a “trickle up” theory of politics in which that same middle-class West Virginia would have voted for issues directly important to him over ones framed to seem devastatingly crucial to his existence. In other words, Democrats were punished for thinking rationally.

Westen’s MRI testing of the human brain found that political advertisements activated the emotional parts of the brain, not the rational ones. Candidates who can tap into this natural network of emotions have the upper hand, regardless of issue positions. Therefore, voters support candidates that share their values and are empathetic. What has influenced these voters the least? The issues. And even when the issues creep into the forefront of the voters’ mind, they are usually muddled by the perceptions candidates create for them.

For political campaigns, it is most important to concentrate on making their candidate relatable to regular voters. More crucial than perfecting issue positions is creating an acceptable personal narrative around the candidate that will make it easier for voters to accept their policy positions by association. For example, Bill Clinton showcased his biography in a commercial about his upbringing in Hope, Arkansas. Besides for the conveniently named town, the hope portrayed in the advertisement about the future and about our ability to come together as on community appealed to voter’s emotions. Voters were able to trust Clinton to make strong decisions on policy not only because he logically portrayed his views, but also because he created a uniform narrative that showed voters the roots of his existence. In doing this, he combined his personal background with the values that are naturally and emotionally important to voters to prove his empathy for the human condition. This connection lent credence to his ability and trust as a policymaker.

While Bill Clinton seemed to effectively relate himself to the public, other Democrats have not been quite as successful. Republicans have had the upper hand on the emotional front by framing themselves and their issues as those of average Americans. In both 2000 and 2004, George W. Bush portrayed himself as an average guy from Texas instead of the Yale educated, Connecticut blueblood that he also is. Specifically in 2000, Bush conveyed himself as a responsible official who could get things done. While the public saw emotional decisiveness from Bush in debates, they only heard Gore’s logical perspective. Furthermore, in 2004, Bush, the man who avoided going to Vietnam by enlisting in the Texas National Guard, undermined veteran John Kerry’s war credentials. While his service in Vietnam should have been a central point in his emotional narrative, Kerry instead allowed Bush to define his involvement in the war. Instead of appearing as a war hero with national security credentials, Kerry was portrayed as a dishonest, disloyal war protester for arguing against the war upon his return from Vietnam. Thus, framing the candidate in ways that may seem illogical to a rational voter, are completely acceptable to more common passionate voters.

In this 2008 election, the Democratic Party was in prime position to replicate the electoral success strategy of Bill Clinton due to the terribly unpopular incumbent. Democratic President-elect Barack Obama made use of similar emotional themes in his campaign for the presidency. From the beginning, the challenge for Obama was not making himself seem relatable, but rather preventing himself from seeming out of touch. Obama started his campaign as not relatable to a vast majority of the country due to the color of his skin and the foreignness of his name. As if that were not enough, his Ivy League education made him seem even more different from the average voter. While his opponents leveled attacks against him claiming he was elitist, Obama did a superb job of deflecting these attacks in favor of a more relatable personal definition. Instead of allowing these to be disadvantages, he neutralized them by using them in emotional terms. His foreign name and skin color became opportunities for Americans to reaffirm the American dream and the notion that anything is possible in America. These principles, coupled with the hope and unity necessary to achieve them, were enough to make Obama relatable to any American regardless of descriptive characteristics.

The issue of race actually ended up favoring Obama due to his campaign’s creation of a continuous narrative that insisted upon post-racial politics and change. In Iowa, a state with a disproportionate amount of white voters, the Obama campaign created an advertisement of him and his family sitting next to a Christmas tree espousing family values by having their children wish the audience Happy Holidays. This type of campaigning, framing the otherwise different candidate’s family to seem just like any other family, thrust Obama to victory in Iowa and nationally. Furthermore, Obama tugged at heartstrings with his emotional infomercial that appealed to responsibility and family. While Obama clearly indicates that government cannot raise families’ children, it can make the journey easier on parents. Thus, he used the emotional appeals of personal responsibility and family in order to portray himself as the candidate most in touch with mainstream America.

In the end, Obama was able to institute Westen’s findings in his campaign by creating an emotional narrative that framed him as more similar to average Americans than most initially perceived. Instead of allowing the “trickle up” theory to run their strategy, Democrats finally accepted the fact that firm logic could not compensate for the natural emotion engrained in all human beings. This time around, the Democratic Party asked voters as their equals in this evolutionary journey to trust them with their futures. And it worked.

For Further Reading:

Drew Westen. 2007. The Political Brain. New York: Public Affairs.

Friday, November 7, 2008

And the Winner Is...

The election cycle has been full of surprises. Both parties produced nominees that came from positions of relative instability and low funding to frontrunner status through a series of Primary upsets. Barack Obama, Sarah Palin, and Joe the Plumber have risen from unknowns to household names. Pollsters have chewed through their fingernails, hoping to get it right this time. In light of the turbulence of the campaign, the election passed with a decisive ease unseen in recent times. It almost felt like there was a collective sense of wonder and amazement: in the context of recent electoral cliffhangers, the political Super Bowl was over by eleven pm Eastern time without any questions as to the validity of the results. National exit polls allow for an investigation of what worked, with whom, and how. Prior to the election, there were a lot of questions about whether Barack Obama would be able to overcome the demographic fragmentation of the Democratic primaries. Did region, race, age, and religion play an impact in the results? Last week we examined the Bradley effect, which had impacted a number of campaigns in previous history. Did the numbers suggest any suspicious deviations in the behavior of undecided voters? And what issues were most important to the electorate before pulling the lever? In the brief pause between now and January 20th, we have time to reflect on and digest the historic implications of this election.

The news cycle was buzzing before November 4: Obama had a substantial projected lead in the polls in a majority of states and the popular vote. But questions loomed about the daunting objectives of his campaign agenda: break into Bush states, perform with demographics that had favored Hillary Clinton, organize historically reliable unmotivated voters, and gain ground with religious voters who are typically skeptical of Democrats. Obama’s focus had always been to run a national campaign, and this was realized in great part by tremendous organization and resources, as well as the fiercely contested Democratic contest.

Regionally, there were a few surprises. McCain’s advantage came in the typical Republican strongholds: the South and the West. However, Obama managed to flip Florida, Colorado, Indiana, Iowa, New Mexico, Nevada, North Carolina and Virginia. Indiana and Virginia had not cast electoral votes for a Democratic candidate since 1964. Obama also achieved high margins among minority voters, garnering 95% of the black vote nationally and 67% of the Hispanic vote. John Kerry was only supported by 88% of black voters, and 53% of Hispanics nationally in 2004. Although John McCain won 55% of white voters, Obama outperformed Kerry among whites by 2 percentage points.

Turnout increased around the board, but it’s also important to note the changes in the distribution of the electorate. Obama’s strength came from a coalition of enthusiastic supporters from a number of constituencies, including younger voters. African Americans, Hispanics, and voters ages 18-29 each made up a slightly larger portion of voters than in previous years. Obama won commanding margins with all three groups. John McCain captured a majority of the white vote, and held on to voters over the age of 65. However, the percentage of the electorate in both these groups is smaller than 2004.

Obama also won larger margins with religious voters, Catholics and Jews both granting Obama majorities, as well as 45% of Protestants. Obama won 24% of the white Evangelical Christian vote, three percentage points higher than John Kerry’s 21%, but a huge loss to McCain’s 74% of the group. It must be noted, though, that Obama’s gains among Evangelicals came particularly from young Evangelicals aged 18-29.

Examining late-deciders indicates no impact of a Bradley effect among the demographic, those voters splitting evenly between candidates. As much fun as it was “picturing yourself as a racist” last week, it seems that voters are becoming more comfortable discussing their preferences with pollsters.

National exit polling paints the picture of a very concerned electorate. At least sixty percent of voters said “yes,” when asked if they were concerned about the following issues: another terrorist attack, health care, offshore drilling, and Supreme Court appointments. An additional 63% of Americans expressed disagreement about the direction of the war in Iraq. These trends are in line with other polling of the American public, considering that only 11% of Americans surveyed by Gallup at the beginning of November felt the country was on the right track. However, the most overwhelming anxiety was about the economy. The national exit poll indicates that 85% of American voters nationally expressed some concern about the economy going into the voting booth, and 54% of those concerned Americans cast a ballot for Barack Obama. Nationally, 63% of Americans said that the economy was the most important issue going into the race. The other issues on the list—Iraq, terrorism, health care, and energy—did not reach ten percent. Concern about the economy was practically universal, the difference being who voters thought best suited to address the situation. Even in states where McCain had commanding margins of victory, a plurality of voters indicated the economy was the most important issue, significantly higher than other issues listed, and the majority supported McCain. Overall, the candidate that won the state did so by winning on the economy.

So we have the numbers now. How did Obama win? It seems like a simple concept: get more votes than the other candidate. But the contributing factors are so much more complicated. McCain’s weaker margins in the west are largely attributable to the organizational efforts of the Democratic primary. Both campaigns registered a significant number of new Democrats, and Obama’s organization in the western caucuses translated into monster field offices for the general election. Obama’s targeted emphasis on early voting, through the bombarding supporters with text messages, e-mails, and carrier pigeons emphasizing important deadlines also proved beneficial. Republicans tend to vote early in elections, whereas Democrats tend to wait a little longer. This year, the early vote was split pretty evenly on the national scale, but provided Obama a critical advantage in Nevada, and due in great part to the focus of the Obama campaign. Obama also owes a debt to the increased turnout and distribution of support from African Americans, Hispanics, and younger voters. Although these demographics benefitted Obama across the board, Hispanic voters in particular aided Obama in the conversion of Florida, Nevada, New Mexico, and Colorado. Obama benefitted by securing a higher percentage of growing demographics, a trend to watch in subsequent elections. Should these demographic shifts hold, it could prove very dangerous for Republicans, whose appeal may be confined to a shrinking segment of the electorate.

Obama managed victory in Virginia due to demographic shifts in the Northern and Southeastern parts of the state that have been emerging more and more in recent years, contributing to the victories of Virginia Democrats such as Mark Warner, Tim Kaine, and Jim Webb. However, the stagnant economy that has forced Kaine’s recent spending freeze couldn’t hurt.

Obama benefitted across the board from the anxiety of the American voter. Research has indicated that anxious voters are most likely to defect from their party in elections. The Republican brand is also highly damaged by the economic downturn. The foreclosure crisis, rise in the cost of food, gas, and college tuition, rampant job loss, and stock market volatility have all occurred under a Republican president after a period of economic prosperity under a Democratic president. A majority of the battleground states have experienced different downsides of the economic downturn, from Florida’s depreciating property values to startling job losses in Ohio. Obama won by selling the economy.

The most important rule of political campaigns is to define yourself before your opponent defines you. Each campaign offered different appeals to the electorate (we’ll discuss this more next week). The main points of Obama’s campaign were that Barack Obama was a qualified and cool-headed leader, and that John McCain was out of touch with the common man. The main points of McCain’s narrative were that Obama lacked the leadership capabilities for this uncertain time, and Obama’s plan would cause a strain on American businesses. Through exit polling, we find that 50% of Americans felt that Barack Obama had the leadership capabilities to be president, and 60% of voters felt that John McCain was out of touch with voters like them. Of those who felt that Barack Obama had the proper leadership experience for this time, 93% gave him their vote. Of those who felt McCain was out of touch with people like them, 79% voted for Barack Obama. Of the 71% of Americans who felt that their taxes would increase under Barack Obama, only 55% voted for John McCain. Although the prevalence of notions from both narratives was high, Obama established the more effective appeal on the most important issue to voters before the election. What he does with that victory remains subject to speculation on both sides of the aisle.

For Further Reading:

Drew Westen. 2007. The Political Brain. New York: Public Affairs.

The Exit Polls

Saturday, November 1, 2008

The Bradley Effect: What It Is and Why You Don’t Have to Worry About It Anymore

Imagine that you are a white citizen, voting in an election where a black candidate and a white candidate are running against each other. You are very racist and believe that black people make terrible leaders, so you decide to cast your vote for the white candidate, regardless of his/her positions. Imagine that a pollster asks who you plan to vote for. Even though you are racist, you don’t live under a rock, so you know that in the post-Civil Rights Era, being openly racist is socially unacceptable. Would you tell the pollster which candidate you plan to vote for?

Now imagine you aren’t racist at all, but you’re casting your vote for the white candidate because you support his/her positions. Yet when the pollster shows up, you fear that if you say that you’re voting for the white candidate, you’ll appear racist. What would you tell the pollster?

You might, regardless of truth, report that you support the black candidate in an attempt to conform to socially acceptable ideas.

Scholars and pundits call this phenomenon the “Bradley effect.” Historically, black candidates for office have polled significantly higher numbers than actual votes. The Bradley effect has a variety of possible explanations, but is usually attributed to the situation described above. White voters have misreported their votes in elections involving black and white candidates. They have overstated their support for black candidates because of the social desirability of seeming racially open-minded. Therefore, black candidates that have had huge percentage point leads in polls have still lost elections or won by very small margins.

The Bradley effect was named after Tom Bradley, the Los Angeles mayor who ran for Governor of California in 1982. Polls showed that Bradley had as much as an eighteen point lead prior to the election, yet he wound up losing. Similarly, Doug Wilder, a 1989 Virginia gubernatorial candidate, had double-digit lead in the polls, and won by only .2 percent. The Bradley effect was consistent in elections involving black candidates from the 1980s through the mid-1990s.

There is renewed interest in the effect with the possible election of America’s first African American president coming up in less than a week. News shows and political pundits, including those at CNN, ABC News, and RealClearPolitics, continue to argue over whether or not the Bradley effect will be present, especially in light of Barack Obama’s surge in the polls in the past month.

CNN discusses the Bradley effect:

CBS’ Web Exclusive on the Bradley Effect:

Even Al-Jazeera [English] picks up the story:

Yet the occurrence of a Bradley effect seems unlikely since it has not been found since the late 1990’s. In fact, some even talk about a reverse Bradley effect, because Obama outperformed expectations in many primaries. There are many reasons in general to why a Bradley effect may be less relevant today Daniel Hopkins, for instance, speculated that the racialized issues of welfare and crime have since decreased in salience. However, racism has not disappeared along with the issues.

A more likely explanation is the influx of younger voters, who tend to be more racially tolerant than their elders. As time goes on, those who were born after the Civil Rights Era become bigger parts of the electorate.

Another explanation may be that the Bradley effect may be embedded in the reports of undecided voters. Some of these voters may have actually made up their minds but are reluctant to voice their preference. These undecided voters may not be reporting their support for the white candidates for the same reason that voters in the past voiced false support for the black ones.

Political commentators are speculating about Obama’s numbers because of effects they found in the Democratic primaries. Some say that Hillary Clinton’s win in New Hampshire was an indicator of the Bradley effect, but in actuality there were many other factors contributing to Obama loss in this state, including some sampling problems with public polls and the reaction to Hillary Clinton’s emotional display the weekend before the primary.

Since it has not been truly seen for a decade, it is unlikely that the Bradley effect will impact the election come Tuesday. The only big concern should be the undecided voters, who are mainly whites. These whites may in fact be McCain supporters appealing to social desirability. This remains to be seen. Obama himself seems unconcerned with the idea. We'll just have to wait for Tuesday night to see who is right.

For Further Reading:

Chris Cillizza. 2008. “Race, Polling and the ‘Bradley Effect.” June 10, 2008.

Michael W. Traugott and Vincent Price. 1992. “Exit Pollsin the 1989 Virginia Gubernatorial Race: Where Did They Go Wrong?” Public Opinion Quarterly. 56(2): 245-253.

Daniel Hopkins. 2008. “No More Wilder Effect, Never a Whitman Effect: When and Why Polls Mislead About Black and Female Candidates.” Paper presented at the 2008 Meeting of the Society for Political Methodology.

John Heilemann. 2008. “The Color-Coded Campaign.” New York Magazine. August 18, 2008. 18-21.

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.