In a campaign that lasted forever, it was probably bound to wind up as it did one rainy weekend in late April. Sen. Barack Obama was visibly tired. He was, his advisers said, frustrated by the increasingly petty nature of the race. Questions about his associations with 1960s radicals and a provocative Chicago minister, and on wearing an American flag lapel pin, had dominated the last debate. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton just would not go away, and was now taunting him with questions about why Obama could not seem to “seal the deal” in blockbuster Midwestern states.
And so that weekend, Obama did what he had said he would not. He went negative—taking the bait, in the view of some delighted Clinton supporters; or, from his own camp’s perspective, finally trying to crush Clinton with a tough blow in order to get on to the general election.
He railed against Clinton, explicitly criticizing her in ways that had previously been merely the subtext of his candidacy. At one stop during a train ride across Pennsylvania, Obama described her campaign this way: “Her basic argument is that the slash-and-burn, say-anything, do-anything, special-interest-driven politics is how it works. And so she has taken more lobbyist money than any other candidate, Democrat or Republican combined.
“She also believes that the nature of politics is that you say what the people want to hear,” he continued. “So maybe you say something about trade when you are campaigning with your husband, 8, 10, 12 years ago, and you say something different now that you are out campaigning in Ohio, Pennsylvania. Maybe you say one thing about the war when it looks like the war is popular, and maybe you say something else about the war when it gets to be unpopular.”
Did the new Obama tone work? Hardly. There’s more evidence that, by inducing the Illinois senator to go negative, the Clinton team lured him into a briar patch. Clinton won the state by nine points, enough to make it a “decisive” victory and raise further doubts about Obama’s viability in the general election. And while Obama prevented a Clinton landslide by narrowing a huge gap in the polls—one that had been as high as 20 points just a month before the vote—that rally came before he decided to go negative. In those final days, as he added personal bite to his talking points, it appeared he actually lost ground.
Without question, Obama was hurt by having referred to rural Pennsylvanians as “bitter” people who “cling to guns and religion.” But some voters also said they were dismayed by his negativity, disappointed that he did not seem to be truly running a different sort of campaign as he had promised. Obama seemed to understand that he’d stepped onto dangerous terrain when he said at a campaign stop in North Carolina in late April, “Over the past month or so, we’ve been getting whacked … and sometimes we’ve been hitting back in ways that we’re really not about.”
All of which raises one of the most consequential—and perplexing—questions of this campaign: Do negative attacks work anymore? For Barack Obama, much hinges on the answer because, if the past is prologue, the general election will be won or lost on the effectiveness of negative campaigning. Or, as the case may be, the refusal to go there.
And Obama faces a unique dilemma if and when he needs to launch tough attacks. His experience in the primaries makes that clear. At the outset, it appeared the 2008 Democratic campaign could be broken down in a handful of dichotomies: as a battle, for example, between the political establishment (owned initially by Clinton) versus grassroots campaigning (which was Obama’s strength). As a measure of change (Obama’s campaign slogan) versus experience (which Clinton claimed). As the triumph of one first over another—the first female candidate versus the first African-American. Youth versus experience. Poll-testedness versus organic loftiness. Steely determination versus a new kind of politics. Words versus actions. Ideals versus polished tactics. Inevitable versus insurgent.
But many of the initial lines dividing the Democratic Party blurred over the course of the race, as Obama picked up institutional support, emphasized his experience outside government and began to appear inevitable, and Clinton morphed into the underdog.
One area of debate remained consistently alive, however: the power of negativity versus the power of holding fire.
In a sense, Obama had changed the metrics of negative campaigning just by showing up. His take on the public mood, verified by his early popularity and, subsequently, the results in Iowa and beyond, was that people were “sick and tired” of the bickering and partisanship, in his words. And he could not, he said, promise a different sort of governance if he did not embody that spirit in his campaign. Even in the end—when he finally did turn on her fully—Obama focused his criticism of Clinton on her very negativity, saying she was too skilled at the Republican-honed art of “throwing everything at me and seeing if it sticks.”
Sen. Clinton, too, started out promising a positive campaign (don’t they all?) but seemed to have real reason to be sincere about it. Saddled with high negative ratings and anxious to shed her national image as a partisan polarizer, Clinton had a substantive policy case to make and a record as a senator to promote that, if she kept to it, could create buzz about her inevitability and lift her above the fray. She ignored the tacticians on her staff (including, among others, her husband and eventually ousted chief strategist Mark Penn) who wanted to take out Obama early on (“strangle the baby in the cradle,” as one of them advised) in favor of rolling out policy measure after policy measure.
By not going after Obama—a tack that was all the more important given Obama’s reach-across-the-aisle, different-kind-of-politics appeal—Clinton managed, for a time, to convey a sense of stature. Her husband even predicted that a Clinton–McCain face-off would be the most civil in recent memory, as the resurgent Republican denounced personal vitriol and called on his supporters to do the same.
So what happened? As is so often the case, one candidate began to lose, and turned to the negative playbook. Clinton started to hit the panic button about a month before the Iowa caucuses—Dec. 2, to be precise. “There’s a big difference between our courage and our convictions, what we believe and what we’re willing to fight for,” Clinton told reporters during an impromptu press availability in Cedar Rapids that day. She was supposedly talking about health care, but the character assault was lost on no one. In hindsight, that day was a turning point for her: It was the moment when she alerted the public she would run that sort of campaign (and, she would later argue, thus be better able to beat the Republicans at their own game).
The negative twists in the months that followed were well documented. Clinton, after losing Iowa and surprising her own staff with a win in New Hampshire, began to raise serious doubts about Obama on every conceivable front—his readiness to be president; his understanding of average voters; his ties to a scandal-tarred Chicago “slum lord”; his liaison with 1960s radicals; his being a “show horse” in the Senate; his ambitions, contrary to his claim of modesty, to have wanted to run for president as a kindergartner; even, subtly, his religion. (“There is nothing to base that on. As far as I know,” Clinton carefully replied to CBS interviewer Steve Kroft on the question of whether Obama was a Muslim, after pictures of him in Somali dress circulated on the Internet). And, of course, former President Clinton went much further, with his assessments of Obama’s war stance (as a “fairy tale”) and his Southern victories (based on support from African-Americans, the implication being that Obama could not appeal to whites).
The longer the race went on, the harsher Clinton got. Before Pennsylvania, she ran an ad ominously featuring Osama bin Laden and questioning, implicitly, whether Obama was tough enough to handle the “heat” of world crises (“get out of the kitchen” the ad warned the feint of heart). So surly was the approach that it prompted a New York Times editorial—published before the Pennsylvania results were even tallied that night, and from the same ed board that had endorsed her—entitled “The Low Road to Victory,” blaming the New York senator for running the worst campaign of the race so far. And that was before the story of Obama’s pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, had fully exploded. “It is past time for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton to acknowledge that the negativity, for which she is mostly responsible, does nothing but harm to her, her opponent, her party and the 2008 election,” began the piece, which did not get any better for Clinton after that.
It was in those perilous weeks that Obama was tugged toward attacking Clinton, and discovered that the public would not give him as much leeway to do so as it would his rival. On his train trip through Pennsylvania the week of April 22, Obama essentially called Clinton a flip-flopper (second only to Swift Boating as the third rail of Democratic name-calling). “Sen. Clinton is a smart person, she is a hard-working person, she is a tenacious person,” Obama said at one point, in what Jason Horowitz of the New York Observer compared to Marc Antony’s “Brutus is an honorable man” speech. Obama continued: “She’s taken different positions at different times on issues as fundamental as trade, or even the war, to suit the politics of the moment. And when she gets caught at it, the notion is, well, you know what, that’s just politics.”
Not exactly Lee Atwater material. But however tepid an attack it might have been, voters—even Obama supporters—did not like it. Exit poll data from Pennsylvania (where he lost) suggested that Obama was more harshly punished by voters for tacking negative than Clinton was. Generally speaking, people felt Clinton attacked Obama more unfairly during the contest (two-thirds blamed her for unfair attacks, compared with half who felt that way about Obama). But Clinton won a much larger share of the voters who saw her as the unjust victim (67 to 33 percent) than did Obama among voters who saw him that way (he won, 54 to 46 percent, the people who said he had been unfairly attacked by Clinton).
By the time the Indiana and North Carolina races were over, a worse trend had emerged for the Democrats: each candidate’s supporters were increasingly disgusted with the other, saying they would rather vote for McCain in the general election if their preferred candidate did not win. Fretful Democratic Party leaders hoped that hardening of opinion was just this year’s expression of I’m-moving-to-Canada-if-so-and-so-wins. Even so, the conventional wisdom was that the bitter turn of events had the potential to hurt the party this fall.
But what lessons did it offer on the inherent value of negative campaigning itself? It is
possible to view Obama’s ascendance as proof of a public repudiation of nasty politics (the case his supporters already make). But Clinton advisers would argue that she did almost as well as he did throughout the race, and that some of her biggest victories (Ohio, Pennsylvania) came after she drew sharp contrasts and ran tough ads. Had the Wright material been unearthed earlier, some Clinton advisers say they would have used it, and potentially stopped Obama at the starting gate as the most aggressive Clinton backers wish they had.
Perhaps the most important conclusion is the one Obama will likely take with him into the summer months: That even during harsh phases, he has little license to hit back in the same manner as his rivals, given that his campaign premise is that he would run the country differently than all that. Clinton supporters fear that is the equivalent of unilateral disarmament—and that the so-called “Karl Rove tactics” will crush him in the hands of John McCain. That, after all, had been a central reason for Clinton’s candidacy in the first place, that she could fight back.
It’s possible, of course, that the voters are sending a more powerful signal—that negative attacks won’t work this year. At least that is the change that the Obama campaign says it believes in. If they’re wrong, though, Obama may be forced to get rough himself … and hope that America forgives him.
Anne E. Kornblut is a national political reporter for The Washington Post. She has followed Sen. Hillary Clinton since before the start of her presidential campaign and also covered the 2000 and 2004.