Negative Campaigning — If it Works and What it Has Accomplished

October 6, 2008

Today Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin presented her second speech in as many days on the topic of opponent Barack Obama’s political involvement with past leader of radical group Weather Underground — a subject repeatedly punched by the McCain campaign. Palin’s words were responded with boos and shouting alike from the McCain supporting crowd, a harsh way of showing they wanted more. 

But has this been the response from the general public, especially neutral undecideds? 

The popular trend has been no, but past and present pollster stats have had a history of contradicting this claim. But in contrast, Barack Obama’s recent climb in the polls have been widely linked with the fact that his campaign has been running a lower percentage of attack ads. 

But in truth it really comes down to the campaign making their attacks carefully and with strategy. Although incredibly dated, my case in point is knockout campaign ad “daisy” by then-presidential candidate Lyndon Johnson. The ad (click here) was truly a textbook attack that although was in fact a PR gamble, paid off handsomely for the Johnson campaign, and is even credited at times in part for his presidency win.

Why? Though a gamble alone because of its topic, the ad was in fact very well played. The Johnson campaign found a large stumble by opponent Barry Goldwater where he stated that nuclear bombing Vietnam was a possibility. 

For those as young as me, to put this into prospect: the political importance of capitalizing on the uncertainty and fear of a nuclear war in 1964 was by all means not the equivalent but rather of the same concept as a candidate in this race falling on a political pot of gold. In other words, finding something (most useful would be a quote) coming out of the opposing campaign that involved the prospect of funding the people who are suspected to have started the financial crisis.  

 But once something like this has been discovered, the  campaign must in fact use their information carefully. 

 What is my point? There are essentially three steps a  campaign must take to orchestrate a successful ad — a juicy  and controversial topic (in Daisy’s case a nuclear war), a  somewhat truthful piece of information from the opponent  (the more untruthful it is the more skilled the director must  be), and finally a non-generic: “and this is why you should  vote John ’64” quote. 

 And “daisy” not only hit straight on all of those topics, but  also found time to put fourth an intense start (the young girl counting roses that turns in to a T-Minus countdown for an nuclear bomb) that has made people think and argue for decades.

And what does this have to do with the 2008 presidential race? In a strategic sense, almost everything.

In my opinion, Obama’s lead has come from two things — his policies and the topic of this post — McCain campaigning. 

But not as you might suspect — I am not discrediting McCain for his negativing campaigning itself, but rather the fact that it has not successfully followed all the points to make a successful PR ploy. This is simply because he has thrown out way too many talking points as ads, and hasn’t followed what has worked in the past and will continue to — a central arguement.

16 Responses to “Negative Campaigning — If it Works and What it Has Accomplished”

  1. Sor Reo Says:

    Step four – don’t go overboard…

    The 3:00 a.m. ad that Clinton ran against Obama was effective, precisely because it was a targeted ad, and it was the main negative ad aired in the few days leading up to the Texas and Ohio primaries.

    McCain, on the other hand, is taking the kitchen sink approach, throwing anything he can hoping something sticks. Problem is, the multiple lines of attack just start to just create noise if those lines aren’t necessarily consistent or logically connected with each other.

    And at some point, too much attacking starts to turn around and make the attacker look bad. That was the problem with McCain in the first debate, and why Obama looked so presidential in comparison by saying McCain was right before attacking him on an issue.

  2. pacer521 Says:

    Sor Reo,

    I agree — I was thinking about mentioning that in the post but decided against it. I agree — that was successful because it was as central as it was at that time. What do you think would have happened if the 3 A.M. ad was one of many negative ads bouncing around that time? It may have been different….

    I agree also that McCain is taking the “kitchen sink” approach as well. He is sending out at least five (from my counting) talking points on the air and on the campaign trail, and I think that is sending around the feeling with liberals that he is desperate.

    Thanks for the comment and the run by my blog!

  3. Texas Liberal Says:

    If I remember correctly from one of my B scool electives is most effective when:

    The theme is singleminded. You take one theme and run only with stories consistent with it. You cannot go inexperienced one day, radical the other, moozleem terrrist the next.
    Your opponent is too high minded to fight back- HA! That is not going to happen.

    Your negative attack takes the attention of your own biggest weakness. McCain is weakest on the economy. But is attacking Obama for being “different”. This year- different is what people WANT! Most people don’t care if Obama is black or green. They see IMO a decent, assertive, calm man who can steer this country through a crisis.

    This comment is longer than most DIARIES! Sorry.

  4. David Says:

    Palin’s goal of confirming a white person’s prejudice towards a black person by playing on fear of a 60’s radical MIGHT deter some voters. But I don’t think it will be widely successful.

  5. pacer521 Says:

    Texas Liberal,

    I agree that you need to think about one attack at a time — like I said above, McCain is losing partly because he is throwing out too many negative talking points at one time.

    Thanks for the comment!

  6. pacer521 Says:


    I agree, but I don’t think it is that simple. Palin’s attacks seem a bit funny to me not because of the topic but rather the fact that she is playing a talking point that hasn’t been used for a while by the McCain campaign. Maybe she is going to play out some sort of Obama pastor attack soon…

    thanks for the comment.

  7. WSE51 Says:

    McCain ought to realize that Obama must have dirt and negative campaign ads about McCain all ready to shoot; and if McCain shovels too much dirt then Obama will hit him right back. For example it has been widely reported that while McCain was a POW, his (first) wife was patiently waiting for him back home, then tragically got into a terrible car accident that left her less attractive. Shortly after coming back to the US, McCain dumped her for the younger, richer, more beautiful current wife. Doesn’t sound like very good “family values” which the Republicans trumpet all the time, does it?

  8. mwmusicvt Says:

    This is McCain’s campaign to lose. He needs to find others to do the attack ads for him (not that I think they are bad). He could win if he focused more on the issues, both his and Obama’s.

    I’m curious to see what will happen in the debate tonight. Will it pick up on the quality of the VP debate, or will it return to the bickering and aimlessness of the first Presidential debate?

  9. politicalmusic Says:


    Are you serious? You think this is McCain’s to lose? What planet are you living on today?

  10. leapsecond Says:

    But in truth it really comes down to the campaign making their attacks carefully and with strategy. Although incredibly dated, my case in point is knockout campaign ad “daisy” by then-presidential candidate Lyndon Johnson. The ad (click here) was truly a textbook attack that although was in fact a PR gamble, paid off handsomely for the Johnson campaign, and is even credited at times in part for his presidency win.

    And then the country went downhill after Johnson won… Probably the worst presidency in history after Bush, but they *could* be tied.

  11. pacer521 Says:


    Although I think releasing dirt and very harsh ads are in Obama’s best interest right now (he is doing fine by pointing out the lies the McCain puts on the air), I do agree that he probably does have something stored in case of a desperate jump by McCain.

  12. pacer521 Says:

    I’ll let politicalmusic and mwmusicvt sort that out.

  13. pacer521 Says:


    What you first must understand is that I am thirteen and although I will admit I am well read on political history, I in no way was alive and present during the Vietnam War.

    And I also think that this is not the time to discuss Lyndon Johnson’s presidential career (I only mentioned the ad) in the wake of a 2008 presidential debate.

    But from what I understand, Lyndon Johnson was (although not popular) a president who under huge scrutiny did what is regarded today as the right thing to do — supporting the civil rights movement.

    But then again you probably know more about this than me. Thanks to everyone for the comments and I’ll post an anlaysis of the debate.

  14. mwmusicvt Says:


    what I am trying to say is that McCain is the one that needs to do all of the work between now and November 4th. There is little that Obama needs to do between now and then what with most major media outlets carrying his water. McCain on the other hand needs to act smart (and soon). If he does, I think he can pull off a victory (and maybe even a big one). If he doesn’t, Obama wins and, well…history will be made, won’t it?

    From that perspective, I believe that the outcome of the election is very much in the hands of McCain and his campaign.

  15. huxbux Says:

    There’s a fine line in launching an attack ad campaign. It has to mask the appearance of being an attack ad otherwise it’s instantly dismissed as being an attack ad. The Democrats and Bill Clinton perfected the art of subtle, focused, and effective attack ads in the early 90s. Republicans, as a generalization, have always seems far to blunt in how they approach attack ads and it generally backfires on them(although the Willy Horton ad by Bush proved effective).

    I think how attack ads are received by the public is dependent on the tone of the candidates. In elections where “change” is not a central theme from one candidate, attack ads are often viewed as politics as usual and accepted by the public as standard operating procedures. In this election, Obama has a campaign that pushes the idea of “change”, and so attack ads are the viewed as the anti-thesis of “change”.

    On a light hearted note, the Onion News did a funny piece on attack ads.

  16. Amazing!! It’s more than just a piece of knowledge!

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