Negative campaigning shocking, but should escalate into the fall

NCC Staff

The increasingly uncivil tone of the current presidential race is shocking even grizzled media types, prompting one prominent Republican to ask the candidates to consider a time out.

But that seems unlikely, despite the public’s general uneasiness with negative campaign tactics.

“We should be having a debate about Mitt Romney’s vision for how he’s going to make it better, and this back-and-forth doesn’t do either side or the country as well as it could,” former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty told CNN last week during a discussion on a very hostile week of campaign rhetoric.

Pawlenty then continued to cite multiple examples were President Barack Obama’s campaign made negative claims about Mitt Romney.

Pawlenty was part of a discussion about reports on Politico that said even jaded political reporters were shocked at the negative tone of the presidential race.

In one roundup story, Brian Williams and Chuck Todd from NBC and Brit Hume and Juan Williams from Fox News are quoted about the intense level of nastiness in the 2012 presidential race.

“This is a little bit earlier in terms of viciousness,” Williams said. “What strikes me is how low it’s getting so early. Come on, this is really way off message for both campaigns. I wonder if either of them really want to go down this road. It’s pretty low to me.”

Kevin Cirilli’s story also points out that campaign bile isn’t exactly new to American politics, with the election of 1800 as a prime example.

The 1800 campaign was the first fully presidential election with elements of modern political machinery as a factor. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams brought name calling into the American political process, with Alexander Hamilton in the mix.

The man pulling the strings of New York’s Tammany political machine in 1800 was Aaron Burr, who challenged Jefferson in a runoff House election and later killed Hamilton in a duel.

The Jefferson camp claimed Adams was “a hideous hermaphroditical character which has neither the force  and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.”

Adams supporters said Jefferson was “the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father.”

The election of 1828 rivaled 1800 in terms of sheer nastiness. Challenger Andrew Jackson’s camp claimed President John Quincy Adams was a pimp, for allegedly arranging for liaisons while he was an ambassador in Europe.

The Adams team responded with charges that Jackson was a murderer who engaged in adultery.

It seems nastier than ever

Given the nasty nature of the past two presidential elections, it’s easy to see why the public at large is turned off by negative campaigning.

In a July poll from the Knights of Columbus-Marist, 56 percent of those polled said political campaigns lacked civility, and 78 percent said they were mostly frustrated by the current political debate.

Another 64 percent said the lack of civility hurt the political process.

But in another August poll from CNN, voters seemed to be convinced that a series of attack ads from the Obama campaign on Romney had affected the election already.

“These are all signs that a summer of negative campaigning on the part of the Democrats seems to be taking its toll on the presumptive GOP nominee,” said CNN polling director Keating Holland.

And don’t expect the negative tone of the campaign to ease up.

The Obama camp clearly caught Romney’s team off guard by launching early attack ads targeted at key swing states like Ohio.

In the GOP primary, Romney wasn’t shy about running attack ads, either. He spent two-thirds of his TV ad spending on attack ads during the thick of the campaign.

A recent survey from Rasmussen Reports shows Americans have noticed the difference.

About 44 percent of Americans believe there are more negative campaign ads than ever.

Early research backs up those survey results. A May study at the Wesleyan Media project showed negative campaign ads were at 70 percent, just before the Obama-Romney campaign kicked off.

In comparison, negative ads were at 10 percent in May 2008.

The Wesleyan study said super PACs, which have unlimited spending ability under the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, were playing a big role in the 2012 campaign.

Scott Bomboy is the editor-in-chief of the National Constitution Center.

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