Independents and Negative Campaigning

Whenever anyone speaks of the views of independents it must be taken with a grain of salt as the independent label applies to a wide variety of people who vary both in their views and in their interest in politics. John Avlon is not really speaking for all independents, but he does have one perspective as author of Independent Nation. In an interview with CNN, Avalon warns that McCain is playing a risky game with his negative ads:

Q: How does the negative campaigning play with independent voters?

Avlon: Independent voters are very sensitive to when politics takes a negative turn. And you know it’s August, and the heat’s turning up on the campaign trail, and so is the rhetoric.

But candidates need to be very careful, because hypocrisy is the unforgivable sin in politics. Both John McCain and Barack Obama have campaigned as being a break from the politics of personal destruction we’ve seen in the past. So, whenever the campaign takes a negative turn, independent voters notice, and they’ll punish the candidate that takes it too far.

Q: So negative campaigning doesn’t work for independent voters?

Avlon: No. … The reason [independent voters] are independent is they’re reacting against the extremes on both sides. They want to see an end to this split-screen politics. They want to see people who put patriotism ahead of partisanship and the national interests ahead of special interests. That’s what the independent voters want.

And both candidates so far have been pretty attuned to that. But this is going to be the real test.

Q: According to a study of political commercials by the University of Wisconsin, a third of McCain’s television ads have actually been negative attacks on Barack Obama. The study also found that 90 percent of Barack Obama’s television ads don’t even mention McCain. Is this a risky strategy for John McCain?

Avlon: Isn’t that interesting? Yes. You know, John McCain is walking a fine line here because a lot of his credibility with independents comes from the fact that he’s always stayed above partisan gutter-ball politics. He’s always criticized those folks who’ve indulged in that, especially on the Republican side, in the past.

So, while [McCain] needs to play offense and define Barack Obama … Barack Obama is focused really on a larger target, the American people.

While I agree with Avalon in his criticism of McCain’s negative campaign, there are some points where I do disagree with this interview. I disagree with making a blanket statement that negative campaigning does not work with independents or that independents are independent for any specific reason. Many independents are, as Avalon states, independent because of a reaction against the extremes and against the negative campaigns of the past. Other independents have not committed to either party because of lacking sufficient knowledge of politics to choose based upon the beliefs of the parties. Some independents will be turned off by McCain’s increasingly negative campaign while such tactics will work for others. The challenge for Obama is to repeat the success he had against Clinton when she decided to run a negative campaign and turn this to his advantage.

Besides disagreeing with a general characterization of all independents as being similar, I also disagree with another premise of this interview which is seen in much of the campaign coverage. The real question should not be whether campaigning is negative, but whether it fails to be fair and  honest. As Howard Kurtz puts it, McCain is employing the lowest common denominator. Obama is going easy on them in calling McCain’s dishonest attacks “cynical.”

Negative campaigning based upon an honest disagreement with one’s opponent is fair game. At least before he flip-flopped on Iraq, it would have been fair for McCain to criticize Obama for wanting to leave Iraq before he believed we could, and it was fair for Obama to criticize McCain’s support remaining in Iraq for one hundred years. What should be opposed is not negative campaigning based upon disagreements, but campaigning based upon distorting the views of one’s opponent and basing the attacks on irrelevant points rather than issues as McCain has been doing recently.

Failure to understand this point has contributed to some of the disagreements between Clinton supporters and other Democrats. Many Democrats decided to back Obama in protest over the “negative” campaign that Clinton ran. The real problem was not simply being negative, but that Clinton’s campaign was dishonest in her portrayal of Obama’s views and the manner in which she resorted to nonsense attacks which had no business in a presidential campaign. Many Clinton supporters failed to understand this distinction and therefore complained that Obama was also running a negative campaign, citing cases in which Obama criticized Clinton’s stands on the issues. They created a false equivalency between Obama criticizing Clinton’s support for the war and support for mandates, which are legitimate issues, and the manner in which Clinton campaigned based upon ads and mailers which attacked Obama by distorting his views and statements.

Obama won the Democratic nomination partially by bringing in many independent voters who were upset with the way in which politics was conducted but members of both parties. Such independents do not see a distinction between the dishonest tactics used by Karl Rove for the Republicans and the same dishonest tactics when used by Hillary Clinton. Such independents will also help Obama in his campaign against John McCain. The difference is that it is primarily the more knowledgeable independents who vote in primaries, while the low-information independents who might be swayed by negative campaigning will also be turning out in a general election campaign. While McCain’s tactics are deplorable regardless of their efficacy, we cannot be certain that such negative and dishonest campaigning will fail to work for him.

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