It began four years ago, even before George W. Bush took the presidential oath, but it wasn’t until this year the presidential campaign’s trash-talk alert passed code orange and entered high risk territory. Now, campaign ads from both sides have hit their peak, as they try to convince voters that the election isn’t about current national and international conditions, but rather 30-year-old events in relation to a conflict in a small pastoral nation in Indochina. But John Kerry’s war record and Bush’s attendance in the Air National Guard aren’t the only issues facing the electorate in speeches and the past weeks’ debates. The challenger and the incumbent have traded barbs over North Korea, Iraq, tax cuts, and Medicare, giving opposing campaign teams plenty of material from which to spin new ads and attacks.[john]
Michigan’s position as a swing state ensures that its citizens are forced to witness the evidence that the more than $1 billion raised by both sides collectively has been put to better use than just purchasing banners for their respective conventions and balloons for the election day after-party. In fact, the multitude of ads and allegations thrown around make it questionable whether the two sides are trying to win an election or if they’re just honoring an old American tradition: that of the dirty, filthy, and nasty.
Dirty politics shelter many different actions under its umbrella. Aside from gerrymandering (manipulating the configuration of voting districts) and rigging of vote counts, it includes bugging and blackmail, and the dirtiest manifestation of them all: the political murder, historically popular in Serbia, among other places. But while American politics certainly have had a taste of them all, none have been as prominent as mudslinging: verbal charges aimed at an opponents character and political integrity. These range from serious attacks, such as accusations of atheism or communism; to more humorous practices, like the 19th century comparisons of Democrats to donkeys (which finally led to the party adopting the animal as its symbol in 1896); to contemporary parodies like last year’s gubernatorial election in California, when the Democrats highlighted Arnold Schwarzenegger’s national ties to Adolf Hitler, and he replied by calling them “ghurlymen”.
This fall, mudslinging seems as popular as ever, intensifying after the first debate at the end of September. Consequently, the old complaints about the modern campaign’s limitations once again rise to the forefront. People react to the ridiculous amount of money that goes into this campaigning, to its focus on irrelevant information, and to its overt negativity. As if any of this is something new.
Tyrants and Gorillas In The Oval Office
Image related attacks are as old as the republic’s first election, during which George Washington went to great troubles to hide his bad complexion and ugly dentures from mudslinging opponents, going so far as to wear false teeth.
The following presidential campaigns were some of the nastiest in the history of American politics. Personal attacks and character assassinations were abundant, demanded and amplified by a sensationalistic press emphasizing scandal and sleaze. Messages were conveyed by slogans, songs, speeches, and a wide array of printed media including newspapers, posters, pamphlets, and mailings. The invention of photography further galvanized the process by visualizing it, foreshadowing the modern campaign’s television ads. Libel and slander laws existed, but were not enforced; reflecting an electorate accepting dirtier methods than those of today. Half-truths and outright lies were hence common; and if political issues ever managed to enter into elections, they were used only as a means to question the integrity of an opponent.
Thomas Jefferson, for instance, met a barrage of accusations during his campaign against Federalist incumbent John Adams in 1800. Not only was he called an infidel and atheist, it was said that if he was elected, he would cede power to the Jacobins, who had ruled post-revolutionary France in a ”reign of terror.” American women would thereby be exposed to violence, rape, and seduction; property would be plundered and vandalized; and Christianity would be profaned and destroyed. The Federalists even publicized written evidence that Jefferson had died. This was actually true, but it turned out that the dead man really was a slave by the same name. Although exposed, the Federalists suffered no significant backlash, as the slow contemporary communications almost prevented the Republicans from convincing voters that their candidate was still among the living. For their part, members of Jefferson’s party certainly were no saints, calling Adams a criminal and tyrant who would establish a monarchy.[page]
As the 19th century campaign progressed, name-calling emerged as a common method to denigrate opponents. Adversaries to Abraham Lincoln, for example, accosted him with everything from simple slurs like “ape” and “gorilla” to more sinister affronts like “shapeless skeleton” and “rail-splitting stallion,” before John Wilkes Booth solved their problem by shooting him at Ford’s Theatre in Washington D.C. The mudslinging then culminated in the 1884 election between Democrat Grover Cleveland and Republican James G. Blaine, generally considered history’s nastiest political rivalry. It featured everything from character assassinations to racism and bigotry, highlighting Blaine’s shady business deals and the discovery of Cleveland’s bastard child. Political issues were buried under an ocean of mud, as emphasis on a clean and wholesome personal life, so important in modern politics, took a permanent place among the characteristics of presidential candidates.
[david]While the dirtiest tricks of the early 20th century appeared in local and state elections, in the guise of vote rigging, national politicians still smeared each other left and right. Highlights included Woodrow Wilson’s alleged two-timing love life, which possibly sent his wife to her grave; and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s supposed sending of a U.S. warship to collect his pet dog, Fala, which he’d forgotten on an inspection tour of the Auletian Isles.
The late 1950s saw the ascension of television as a political weapon. It began with the first televised debates between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon in 1960 and America’s first broadcasted campaign advertisements. Democrat Lyndon Johnson’s group made the most notorious ad in 1964, which followed an idyllic scene of a young Aryan girl picking flowers with the sound of a NASA countdown and footage of a nuclear explosion (“Vote for president Johnson on November 3, the stakes are too high for you to stay at home”).
As the conflict with the Soviet Union and the war in Vietnam bore on, smear became issue-based rather than personalized. But the dirty tricks were still there and shamefully returned to the public’s attention, in what possibly was the century’s biggest political scandal.
”I think we have to go a long way to surpass what the Nixon campaign did in 1972,” said David Rohde, a political scientist and distinguished professor at MSU.
Nixon’s team was responsible for numerous break-ins, buggings, harassments, and pranks leading up to the well-known Watergate incident and the president’s subsequent impeachment. His fall from grace resonated strongly with an electorate tired from the strain of the Vietnam war, sick of shady politicians and the dirt they slung at each other. Campaign rhetoric hence cleaned up somewhat in the 1970s, becoming self-promotional rather than attacking. But things returned to normal in the following decade, and the rest, to quote a cliché, is history.
Capturing The Electorate
The modern smear campaign, then, is characterized by questions regarding the opponent’s motives and integrity; harangues about what he is for or against, but not what the campaign’s own candidate stands for; true evidence implying false conclusions; and an emphasis on past failures and embarrassments.
The 1990s and the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal showed us that nothing was too dirty and that it didn’t matter if the politician was even running for office. Opponents went after Clinton with the intent to smear his reputation by attacking his morals and exposing a certain oral encounter. Americans forgot what Clinton actually did or did not do during his eight years in office and instead remember him as the “Slick Willy” that recieved gratification in the oval office.
Nowadays, there are large scale advertising processes, which first identify and target audiences, and then pattern strategies after the predominant values found. Hence, several researchers have found that a successful campaign convinces the electorate that it shares its sentiments, and that the opponent doesn’t.
”[They should] make negative charges that can’t easily be proved false,” Rohde said. [page]
[mud]Charges typically revolve around issues evoking strong emotional responses, rather than rational ones. Patriotism, prejudice, religion, and fear are therefore commonly targeted. Similarly, as psychologists have shown, TV ads use filmic devices that only register at the edge of the viewer’s consciousness. They bypass rational perception and leave unarticulated information unrelated to the political issues at stake. TV’s growing importance in 20th century campaigns diluted substantive argumentation, making elections accessible to low-involvement voters who don’t take the time to investigate every side of an issue; while they also, as all humans, are incapable of processing all information coming at them.
”If we did that for everything we knew, we’d be overwhelmed, so we face the challenge of lots of information coming in by balancing rational and irrational thinking,” said Cheryl Kaiser, a social psychologist whose research tracks human behavior regarding their cultural world views.
”Negative information oftentimes does capture our attention more quickly than positive information,” she said. ”If can you raise fear in people, what you’re going to be getting is people trying to cling on to candidates who can help them avoid the fear.”
And thus negative campaigning works, as voters absorb its messages even if they disapprove of its methods. Accuracy is optional, but lack of it could backfire.
”It is potentially very damaging for a campaign to make negative charges against your opponent that are proven false,” Rohde said.
At the least, allegations must be credible. If they are, they can be very powerful, especially if the other side isn’t slinging back any mud.
Political scientists noted early on that a negative attack must be answered for its effect to be minimized. This can be done through a press conference, a response ad, or by establishing a well-informed electorate. A defensive strategy is likely to fail: a successful response either disassociates the candidate from the accusations, reframes the context they appeared in, or go on the offensive and allege even grislier things about the opponent.
”The best response, if it’s  possible, is to prove that [the charge] is false,” Rohde said. “Even better is to get someone who’s neutral to say that it’s false.”
Some analysts have gone so far as to suggest that a politician guilty of the allegations directed at him would respond best by admitting his mistake and apologizing for it. However, aside from in Bill Clinton’s televised oratorical tearjerker following his realization that he neither could escape the blame for the Monica Lewinsky-scandal or his subsequent lies, this theory is rarely put into practice.
The 2004 Election Revisited
Both press and populace behave differently in close presidential races, when candidates devote more time to communicating with the electorate. The media, sometimes criticized as too passive, too ready to let candidate rhetoric seep into their news coverage, make better use of their time, producing substantive reporting. Simultaneously, of course, the campaign teams spend greater time making more ads.
Contrary to appearances, campaign ads are regulated. The National Association of Broadcasters has guidelines for which commercials to air and which to reject. Furthermore, American law requires that television and radio ads have the explicit approval of the candidates before airing. Candidates can get around this legislation by letting independent groups, such as the ”Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” or ”MoveOn,” do the dirty work and then condemn their practice if necessary, as both Bush and Kerry have done this year. Also, the Internet lacks proper regulation for political advertising, and online slurs are hence much harsher and more numerous. Amendments including the world wide web into existing legislation have been proposed, but even if they pass, the task of enforcing them remains.
Mudslinging will likely have an effect on the upcoming election, because it is clear it will be a close race. More interesting is the candidates’ respective reasons behind going on the offensive and not focusing on their own policies. It’s an obvious tactic for Kerry, as he’s challenging the conditions the current administration has established, conditions which divided the country. Bush’s reasons are more obscure, implying that smear tactics have been adopted into the political culture, becoming expected tools too dangerous to avoid. Or maybe the answer lies closer to what Rohde suggested.
“One of the reasons for negative campaigning is to get people not to vote, to get your opponent’s supporters to stay home,” he said. ”It’s hard to get people to switch sides, especially once they’ve made a choice. It’s easier to turn them off from voting.”

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