C&E: You’ve often said a candidate has to be prepared to pick targets and go after them. How much of a danger is there that this sort of tactic can backfire? Where is the line a candidate should not cross?
Ailes: There’s something about the American people: They have such an innate sense of fairness that the red light goes on and the bells go off the second you approach that line. Any kind of personal attack is verboten. You shouldn’t do it; it’s not worth it. It will backfire. But anybody’s position on an issue, anything they’ve said about an issue, and any way they’ve voted on an issue is fair game. You have every right to question that and go after it aggressively.
It also has to do with how you look and how you sound. If you look like a mean SOB who’s putting the other person down, that’s different than if you’re inquiring about the process they go through to make a decision on behalf of the public. Also, phrase it in an interesting way; don’t phrase it in a mean or unfriendly way. Bob Dole said that if there’s anything he would have done differently, he would have said [to George Bush] “Start telling the truth about my record” instead of “Stop lying about my record.” Frankly, had he done that, life might be different for Bob Dole today.
C&E: As you’ve said, a lot has to do with how you present the attack. How can a candidate attack without coming across as a mean person?
Ailes: First, it has to be founded in fact. You better be able to defend it after the attack—so don’t stretch it. In other words, if the guy’s guilty of A and B, don’t make him guilty of A, B and C. That’s what a lot of people do. They’ll exaggerate, and then it’s not defendable. Any time you can do it with humor, you have a much better chance. As long as the audience or the public perceives you to be sincere in your approach and not petty, they will think it’s fair and they will wait for the other person’s response. But if they sense it’s petty or the slightest bit unfair, they’ll turn on you right away.
Take the  Jimmy Carter-Ronald Reagan debate. Carter kept trying to imply that somehow Ronald Reagan was going to push the button, or was irresponsible with nuclear war. You might have been able to make the case that Carter was responsible. But it’s very tough when you see a person with Reagan’s nice-guy persona up there to believe this guy somehow wants nuclear war, that he somehow wants to antagonize the Russians into an attack. It’s just not credible; it doesn’t cut with what all your other senses are telling you.
C&E: When an Ailes client is harshly attacked, how do you respond?
Ailes: It depends whether it’s a salient issue or a petty issue. That’s the first decision, because the attack may be worth ignoring—particularly if the other guy is 25 points behind and what he says isn’t real or isn’t defendable. In that case, you get a surrogate to do the counterattack, and you stay away from it. A lot of people can’t do that because their ego becomes involved. And that’s exactly what the other person is trying to do—suck you into battle.
Early in my career, I worked for Jim Holshouser [a gubernatorial candidate in North Carolina], who had almost no money. And he couldn’t get his opponent in the primary [Jim Gardner] to debate us. So I asked my candidate, “What town is Gardner from?” He was from a little town in North Carolina [Rocky Mount]. Then I asked if the town had a newspaper. He said they have a weekly newspaper. I said, “What does an eight-of-a-page ad cost in that weekly newspaper?” and he said, “About $11.” I said, “Alright. Buy one every week for the next six weeks and just put ‘Why is Gardner afraid to debate Holshouser?’ and put in reverse black-on-white with scary lines on it, like Halloween.” So we spent six weeks’ worth of $11. Every time that poor guy called home, his family said, “Why are you afraid to debate that boy? You know, this is very embarrassing down here.” So Gardner finally began attacking my candidate and accepted the challenge for debate.
To make a long story short, Holshouser ended up winning. Egos are amazing things. When a guy has his ego hurt, he’s liable to jump into a fight he doesn’t need to have.
C&E: We’ve talked about negative advertising. Are there certain kinds of positive spots that usually don’t work?
Ailes: I’ve found increasingly less effectiveness with the man on the street type of stuff that was very standard fare for years. It can still be effective, but it’s got to be done well. The last time I saw it done reasonably well was some stuff we did for Reagan in 1984 showing some Democratic workers who were going to vote for Reagan. By getting very believable people, they were pretty effective commercials. But, in general, I think man on the street ads and endorsement spots are having less and less effect on people. The electorate’s getting very sophisticated, and they just want to make their own judgments. Just because somebody else likes a candidate doesn’t necessarily mean everybody else will like them.