Negative campaigning now may be more subtle Voters more attuned than ever to tactics

November 08, 1992|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Staff Writer

Memo to future candidates from political consultant Ra Strother: Put away the meat cleavers and bludgeons. Forget the Rambo-style frontal assaults. The age of mad-dog attack politics is over. But for any voters now sighing with relief, none of this means negative campaigning is dead.

"You'll just be cutting with a scalpel instead of an ax now, is all," Mr. Strother said. "We're in an evolutionary stage in the &r campaign business. It isn't that negative campaigning doesn't work anymore. It's just that one has to be more careful than ever on how and when to use it."

In the wake of an election in which several bluntly negative campaigns backfired -- including President Bush's, some say -- many political professionals agree with Mr. Strother.

They say public scrutiny has pushed negative campaigning into a new age where sophistication and subtlety will be necessary for success.

Well, maybe.

"I'm not so sure," said Neil Oxman, a campaign strategist who helped topple Rep. Chester Atkins in the Massachusetts Democratic primary this year with an aggressive attack. "There was nothing subtle at all about it."

Mr. Atkins made himself an easy target for blunt objects by bouncing checks at the House bank, and Mr. Oxman hammered away on behalf of the winner, Martin Meehan.

"One thing I have learned is that there are no rules in this business," Mr. Oxman said. "Every race is different; every state is different; every district is different."

Still, he said, voters have become more attuned than ever to negative tactics after watching them intensify for years, so a candidate now risks a backlash if he doesn't accompany his attack with a positive message.

And, Mr. Oxman allowed as how negative campaigns do require more thought than they used to.

"The responses [from an opponent] to negative campaigning come much more quickly now, so if you're going to do it you'd better anticipate the next three steps down the line, almost like a good chess player has to do," he said. "And I think people more than ever are clamoring for a positive message, too. The best campaigns I saw this year were a combination."

There are plenty of examples of negative campaigns that backfired in this election.

In Wisconsin, Democratic Senate candidate Russ Feingold beat two more heavily favored opponents in the primary after they went at each other like snarling dogs.

Mr. Feingold set himself apart with an advertisement in which his two opponents were being spattered with mud while he stood off to the side, clean as a whistle.

In the general election, Mr. Feingold upset incumbent Republican Bob Kasten, partly by making an issue of the negative tone of Mr. Kasten's campaign.

Mr. Strother cites the losing senatorial primary campaign by Democrat Liz Holtzman in New York. With her heavy emphasis on negative advertising, he said, she "helped pay for her own defeat."

Curtis Gans, executive director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, offered two pieces of anecdotal evidence that show negative campaigning is working against candidates as much as for them.

"In all the states that had increases in voter turnout, New York had the least," Mr. Gans said.

There was only a .11 percent increase there in turnout by the eligible voting population, even though voter registration had increased by 4.1 percent.

He cites the ultra-nasty tone of the Senate race between winning Republican Alfonse D'Amato and Democrat Robert Abrams as a probable contributor.

He also pointed to the two Senate races in California.

In the race between the winning Democrat Dianne Feinstein and Republican John Seymour, which he described as "genteel though not close," the number of people who voted was "substantially higher" than in the "close but scummy" race between winning Democrat Barbara Boxer and Republican Bruce Herschensohn.

Then there was President Bush.

Not only did he offer scant lip service to his own belated plan for recovery, critics say, but his attacks on Democrats Bill Clinton and Al Gore reached undignified levels of viciousness when he referred to them as "bozos," "crazies," "Ozone Man" and a host of other derogatory terms.

The moral of all these examples is simple, says Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster and consultant: "It's very bad to be branded as the candidate that has the negative campaign.

"But it is clearly and demonstratively possible to run a negative campaign without being branded that way. Voters have become more suspicious of it, more critical, and one has to be more sophisticated, more savvy."

How does one run a sophisticated negative campaign?

"It's less personal, more documented," Mr. Mellman said. "You use more facts, less name-calling."

Mr. Strother's firm tried a new style of attack in the winning congressional campaign for Arkansas Democrat Blanche Lambert, who unseated incumbent Bill Alexander in the party primary.

The key ad was a combination of a quick-hit negative spot, running 10 seconds, followed by a brief fade to black and then a 20-second positive spot.

"The negative ads she ran did not increase her negative rating in the polls," Mr. Strother wrote in a brief analysis of the strategy for the magazine Campaigns and Elections.

The very things that helped make negative campaigning a bit more dangerous this time -- such as the demand for more specific proposals on how to stimulate the economy -- might have vanished by the time the next election rolls around.

"There's a world of time between now and the next election, and by then people may be in a completely different mood," said Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political scientist.

In other words, keep that meat ax on the shelf -- but sharpened.

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