This presidential election is destined to be one of the ugliest in history. That’s the consensus building among political observers about the tone and tenor of the 2012 campaign. “It terms of the volume, this probably will be the most negative campaign in modern times,” former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) recently told Newsmax.
Democrats seem to agree. President Obama has abandoned the rhetoric of hope and change and has compared this cycle to the 1964 contest between Lyndon Johnson and conservative Republican Barry Goldwater. Democrats are also weary of the big money rolling into Republican Super PACs, which they believe will ratchet up the negative tone of the race.
But compared to past cycles, is it really that bad? Politics, after all, used to be a blood sport. To get a bit of context, it’s useful to look back on the history of political campaigns and discover that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Take Walter E. Quigley, a Minnesota political consultant who worked in the early-to-mid twentieth century developing the art of what he called “political dynamiting.” His story is recounted in a fascinating article from a 1957 issue of The Western Political Quarterly.
Quigley’s method of dynamiting was to print what could only superficially be described as newspapers. These rags contained no real journalism, but were instead filled with political attacks. They were published under the masthead United States Senate News, with a different edition for each state in which Quigley had a client. He cleverly used the news form to create the illusion of credibility giving cover to what was actually a partisan attack. Sound familiar? Luckily for Quigley, Snopes.com and Politifact did not exist yet.
Quigley at least thought of himself as somewhat of a pioneer of this “front group” practice. In a 1951 letter to Frank Jonahs, the author of the aforementioned WPQ journal article, Quigley said of political dynamiting, “Up to several years ago I had this field to myself.” Through a few election cycles Quigley said the tactic had become more commonplace.
For those who are expecting an ugly campaign this year, Quigley speaks to us through the decades with a bit of advice. “People like rough-and-tumble campaigns. The only way to even begin to combat ‘dynamiting’ is to dynamite back, if one has the ammunition,” he wrote in a 1957 letter.
It’s something campaign professionals, and the public, should consider. Do campaigns go negative because that’s what the public wants? Can you only fight fire with fire?
Bush, in the same interview where he warned about the negative tone, advised Mitt Romney: “I think Mitt needs to stay above the fray a bit, and to offer a hopeful message that can lift people’s spirits up because after the end of this four or five months of really negative campaigning.
“I think people are going to be motivated by a more positive message,” he added.
There are historical examples of Bush’s advice being implemented – unsuccessfully. In one losing campaign, Quigley went “entirely pro” in his messaging for Sen. Joseph Ball. In other words, no attacks on Ball’s opponent. The incumbent ended up losing the campaign to Hubert Humphrey. The lesson Quigley took from that experience was that a campaign can’t win on positive messaging alone. “‘Heat’ is what people like,” he said.
Robert Spicer is a doctoral candidate in media studies in the School of Communication and Information at Rutgers University. He is also an assistant professor of communication at DeSales University in Allentown, PA.