How Obama survived the smears

And how McCain helped him do it


How Obama survived the smears

A week before Americans cast their votes, Brian Moore, the Socialist Party’s nominee for the White House, was on the Colbert Report discussing Obama’s candidacy. “He’s a [capitalist],” Moore complained of his Democratic rival. “His party is a capitalist party and he’s propping up the capitalist system with the bailout.” Communists, socialists and the rest of the normally splintered far left all seemed to agree: Obama is not one us.

John McCain and Sarah Palin, however, had come to a vastly different conclusion. While McCain was describing Obama as America’s “redistributionist in chief”, Palin was warning voters “now is not the time to experiment with socialism.” Republicans had spent the entire campaign trying to pin a label on the Illinois senator. Obama’s reluctance to wear a flag pin on his lapel left him open to charges of unpatriotism; the outbursts of his former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, coupled with unfounded rumours about Michelle Obama’s supposedly racist thesis on race relations had others accusing him of ties to black nationalist movements; his middle name (Hussein) and his early education in Indonesia were often trotted out as evidence he is (or once was) a closet Muslim; and finally, as if being described as a toxic combination of Hugo Chavez and Louis Farrakhan weren’t enough, Obama’s relationship with Bill Ayers had Palin accusing him of “palling around with terrorists.”

None of the accusations were true. What’s odd, however, is that none of them stuck. In the battle for the Republican nomination in 2000, McCain’s first bid for the White House was partly scuttled by a whispering campaign painting his adopted Bangladeshi daughter as an illegitimate love-child. In 1988, the GOP relied heavily on a controversial ad that grossly exaggerated Michael Dukakis’s role in the release of prisoners on weekend passes to win the White House. And in the 2004 presidential race, the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth were so successful in undermining John Kerry’s military record that the group’s name was eventually transformed into a verb synonymous with attacks that are as dishonest as they are well-orchestrated.

Going negative, as general rule, is an effective strategy. A study conducted in final weeks of the 2004 presidential election found negative ads caused 14 per cent of viewers to change their minds about their favoured candidate. Positive ads, on the other hand, led only five per cent of viewers to adopt a more favourable view of the candidate they oppose. Given the tone of recent presidential races, one of the great successes of the Obama campaign may very well have been its ability to avoid the smear. “Obama, quite skillfully and with enormous discipline from the beginning, set up a counter-narrative that he was the person who rose above the pettiness of contemporary politics,” says Rick Perlstein, author of Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America. “By the end, smears did a more effective job of defining the Republicans.” But Obama’s compelling image as the man-above-the-fray may not have been enough on its own.

Obama was, after all, only slightly less prone to negative campaigning. Research by the Wisconsin Advertising Project found that, between June 4 and October 4, 47 per cent of McCain’s ads were negative in tone compared to 39 per cent of Obama’s. However, one of McCain’s crucial missteps may have been his inability to distance himself from the smears. “In 2004, the Bush campaign was really adamant about not having any association at all with the Swift Boat people,” says Farhad Manjoo, author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society. “They even made calls on them to stop their campaign. Joe the Plumber is part of the McCain campaign, he is touring with them. He hasn’t been kept at arm’s length. He is saying outrageous things, but he’s part of their campaign apparatus.” Whereas Obama could rely on sympathetic bloggers and other supporters from outside his campaign to undermine the Republicans, McCain was more closely involved in his campaign’s aggressive courtship of the G.O.P.’s skeptical base.

The perceived radicalization of the McCain campaign went a long way to stoking a long-dormant censorious streak among the country’s chattering class. At one point, Time magazine’s Joe Klein described McCain’s ad accusing Obama of having supported a bill that would teach sex education to children in kindergarten as “one of the sleaziest ads I’ve ever seen in presidential politics.” Even Karl Rove, the man most closely associated with the vicious politicking that’s become commonplace in races south of the border, would eventually get into the act, accusing McCain of having “gone one step too far” in his attacks against Obama. Although McCain’s wife Cindy attempted to deflect the criticism by accusing the Democrats of running “the dirtiest campaign in American history,” her rebuke was quickly dismissed.

Successful presidential campaigns in the U.S. had, until now, become defined by attacks. It might be tempting to view Obama’s victory as an epitaph for political smear campaigns, but they’re unlikely to disappear from the political landscape; like hyperbolic promises, “contrast ads” that stretch the truth—or invent it—are as entrenched as any campaign tactic. But by relying on a stirring backstory and driving McCain to the Republicans’ angry margins, Obama has effectively handed future political hopefuls a gameplan on how to defeat them.


How Obama survived the smears

  1. Obama survived the smears because McCain was not willing to delve too deeply into his past, and made some controversial topics off limits, while journos shed any objectivity they had and basically became an extension of Obama’s communications staff.

    Socialist: Obama talked about ‘spreading the wealth around’ and said paying taxes was patriotic. Obama’s also a believer in false consciousness.

    Sex Education: I think it was Byron York who actually looked into this and the bill in question did promote sex ed for young people.

    Black Nationalist Movement: Jeremiah Wright, Obama’s mentor and pastor, was a strong believer in Black Liberation Theology but I am not sure how close that is to Black Nationalist Movement. A few pastors at Obama’s church also supported reparations for blacks because of slavery.

    Pallin’ Around With Terrorists: Ayers and Dohrn are clearly domestic terrorists and were responsible for launching Obama’s political career.

    It’s unfortunate that Obama could say anything he wanted and the msm would take his word for it. Obama’s got an interesting past, shame few bothered to actually have a look.

    The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth were a unique case and I think Dems are not looking clearly at what happened. Philippe G writes that they have become to be seen as “dishonest as they are well-orchestrated” and I would argue that’s not the case. Many smears would fit that description. The Swift Boaters were effective because they were Kerry’s colleagues, subordinates and bosses from his armed services days and they questioned his service/valour but not anonymously.

  2. The negative perception that swift-boating has given the populace is now a viable counter-attack to any ‘contrast’ ad.

    Smears might work when they’re based largely on truth, but inventions and selective interpretations are more likely to backfire on those who use them.

    Voters aren’t as ignorant as we used to be.

  3. jwl: Actually, none of the Swift Boaters had ever served with Kerry, except for one, Stephen M. Gardner. And aside from Gardner, those who did serve with Kerry supported his bid for the presidency. It’s all pretty well-documented.

  4. I was glad to see that the lies and suggestions did not work this time. I feel that people are so fed up with the low road and more concerned with their pocketbooks. I would hope that Palin and her kind are a part of the past. Most of us need and want a united country. I could never understand the reasoning behind the Ayers attacks. I felt if he was a bad and the Repub tried to pretend, why wasn’t he behind bars. A lie is only a lie if you can get someone to believe it and some people will believe anything that’s convenient. I see McCain as a basically decent man who just couldn’t go there; whilst Sarah Palin is such an uninformed and backwardly stupid candidate that she believes anything is fair game except the exposure of her ignorance. I thought that it was horrible what was done to Kerry, especially by those who had served this country, when Bush and Cheney had never even bothered to serve the country at all but took the opportunity to screw it over.

  5. I think the problem is that John McCain isn’t a good liar. Lying convincingly again and again when you and a large part of your audience know it is a lie is a skill few people have. Dubya had it. Palin has it. Reagan had it. Deep down, McCain has an honest streak that only lets him sound sincere when he really is. Unfortunately, his first sincere moment in the campaign was his concession speach.

  6. In Canada, Dion did not survive the negative attack ads.

  7. Phillipe G

    You are only focusing on those who served on Kerry’s boat I think. There were at least 15 swift boaters who served under Kerry or who participated with Kerry in multi-boats patrols or were in his Coastal Division.

    One of the ads was about Cambodia/Christmas and Kerry had to ‘revise’ his memory that was supposedly ‘seared’ into his brain and two other ads were about Kerry’s behaviour after the war, when he compared other American troops to Genghis Khan and claimed to throw his medals away. The SBVT guys were not happy with his behaviour and pointed out to the American public. Kerry couldn’t fight back because the accusations were true.

    They weren’t just some yahoos making stuff up.

    Calethia H

    Ayers wasn’t jailed because of a technicality and the Feds had to ask the charges be dismissed even tho Ayers bragged about what he had done.

  8. looks like the big dubyah and his candidate predecessors, maccain and palin swung the vote for the democrats

  9. Ayers is now a professor in the College of Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, so people must have decided that he’s not all bad! Interesting that while Sarah Palin was talking about Obama palling around with terrorists, most people didn’t know that until a few months ago (hmm…around the time the VP candidate decision was made), Palin’s husband was a paid up member of the Alaskan Independence Party, a party which advocates separating from the U.S. How unpatriotic is THAT?!? And in the past, Palin has gone to AIP conventiions with him, and this year she videotaped a message to be played during the convention. Why wasn’t THAT splashed across the headlines?

  10. A very gullible writer wrote:

    “Ayers is now a professor in the College of Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, so people must have decided that he’s not all bad!”

    Uhhh … no, not quite.

    Those who hired him may have thought so – I suppose it’s entirely within the realm of possibility that those who depend on him for passing grades would agree.

    BUT this does not change the fact that Ayers was a Weatherman [look it up on Google if you’re too young to know what a Weatherman was] – or the fact that Ayers’s living room was one of the launching pads for Obama’s campaign, or the fact that Ayers has absolutely no regrets about the lives he callously took (and has in recent years wished that he could have taken more), or about those lives taken in 9/11.

    And Ayers is only one of many unsavoury characters whom Obama counts among his friends (well, some days they’re “friends” … other days they’re just “acquaintances” because their kids went to the “same school” … different age cohorts, so they weren’t at the “same school” at the same time … but, hey, why quibble over such shameless and obfuscatory Obamaratic tap-dancing.

    And speaking of tap-dancing… Obama’s advisors->dismissed/resigned advisors->appointed again advisors (not to mention his “Audacity of Hope” mentor of 20 years standing and *his* exemplary behaviours and exhortations) would suggest that Obama in action provides the world with a whole new meaning to “Pasa doble”.

    P.S. Tanya … here’s a helpful hint from Hilary: the election is over. Obama bought it and won it … so what on earth does Palin have to do with the price of tea in China? … or more to the point what is the relevance of Palin’s past, present or future to the ascension to power of the product of the notorious Chicago “machine” ?

  11. There is nothing more vile than th scurrilous creatures who o want to control the world from the right and/or soemtimes the left. Their lies to win in their “democracy’ did not work this time, beacause the people finally saw th elight -had enough of Cheney ,Bush et al.- Ispent sometime in “non democratic Cuba last year.I have never felt so free in my life. Americans cannot curetly go ther witout being fined and jailed by their current “democratic” government. There is now some hope for America and the rest of the world to truly move toward democracy. But the Palins and their vile cohorts will contine to attempting to undermine such hope with theiir distortions and blatant lying. Round 1 Obama!

  12. To say “Obama survived smears” is to denigrate his overwhelmingly victory, especially in so called “Red States”, and his incredible organization, strategy positive campaign. He inspired people with his message of hope and unity. He never wavered from his essential message and refused to take the low road that his opponents first Hillary Clinton and then John McCain took. He did not make personal attacks like they did, while responding to the smears he continued with his message.
    In so doing he first defeated star power of Hillary Clinton with her incredible political and financial support. He rebuffed all her attempts to play race, gender and fear cards and most importantly won her and her supporters without ever engaging in any quid pro with her to this day. He treated her with respect and dignity even when she made personal attacks on him.
    McCain on the other hand had no message and he ran around like a chicken with head cut off. In the end he relinquished his campaign to the ignorant lying Sara Palin and “Joe the Plumber” both were a fraud. While Sara Palin and John threw all kind of dirt at Obama, he stayed cool and still on his message, working tirelessly with his superior organization launching a strong campaign even in McCain’s home state of Arizona. He stayed on his message and people came to believe him. McCain increasingly appeared irritated, angry and erratic and his judgements whether on Economy or selection of Sara Palin appeared desperate and poor. McCain’s charges that Obama palled around with terrorists and was a socialist were laughable when was surrounded by the Capitalists, free thinkers and finally endorsed by none other than Colin Powell, a long time Republican, former Secretary of State and a general. While endorsing Obama, he summed up best what was wrong with McCain from his selection of Sara Palin to economy and what was good about Obama. Until then few had so clearly and logically had accessed the situation.
    Obama continues to amaze with his methodical analysis of what faces him as president and is surrounding himself with the best and brightest as he did with his campaign. He appears determined to have the best possible people in his administration and go on to become not only a good president but one of the great Presidents of all times. The economy and war pose formidable challenges to him but these very challenges provide him with great opportunity as well to become a great President. For our own sake we can hope that he is successful and leave the uninformed analysis of the election behind us for another day.

  13. Please God, Find another person with the Honesty, Integrity and just plain commom sense to do for Canada what , it appears, Obama could well do for the US of A. Certainly we in this country don’t have anyone with the credentials, particularly honesty, integrity, and transparency to get this country moving again in the right direction. It probably would’nt hurt if the lazy 40% of our eligible population who don’t get off their duffs to vote where charged a few hundred dollars for not doing their duty. They don’t seem to realize they could well lose their privilege to have a say in the management of Canada if they continue refusing to do their duty.

  14. American Conservatives got their cans kicked for stupid policies, phony wars, theft and incompetence at all levels in particular, economics; curiously all the qualities Harper found attractive enough to accept as policies good enough for this country.

  15. I’d hate to sum it all up to an over simplistic view of the election. But, to any onlooker with a moral conscience it was merely a battle of good vs. evil. McCain and his tactics came across like a desperate “hell bent” demon stopping at nothing to secure his success. His blatant trials at mocking Obama and bringing up unnecessary and unproven “evils” of Barack Obama only mirrored his own incapacity for justice and morality by intentional and fictional smears. Baracks’ own steadfastness which was hugely endorsed (Kennedys’ , Clintons’ and even ex republican Colon Powell not ownly illustrated their positions but demonstrated a clear “faith” in a new and untried leader. Movies with heroes and villians don’t get better than this. It was clear from the start- someone who was supremely good and able to do vast good for the people vs. more of the same using desperate measures ie.: borrowing the “change” campaign from Obama’s team and passing it off as their own and using every trickster move in veiling the truth to all overly traditional right wing voters who know nothing about politics. The answer was clear from the start.

  16. I agree with St. Anselm’s Nov 13 remarks; and I would add that I am bemused by Mr. Gohier’s failure to say “How McCain and Palin helped Obama to survive their smears”
    Marnie Tunay

  17. I agree and disagree with the premise of this article – I think it was important that Obama distanced himself from the negative aspects of his campaign, however, I don’t think that was a necessary part of the strategy. After all, you have to ask WHY did McCain and Palin directly use personal attacks, while Obama left those to third parties. The answer is organization.

    1. Obama was wildly popular among his base, McCain was not.
    -America is a deeply (and increasingly) divided country along partisan and racial lines (age is also more polarized than it has ever been, while class divides do not seem especially pronounced). Because of this Obama had strong partisans behind him, and in particular, YOUNG partisans. The big plus of young partisans? They do the whisper campaigns for you: did you know that there is a statue of John McCain in Ho Chi Minh city? Did you know that Sarah Palin didn’t really give birth to Trig, who was really a child of Bristol? These sorts of things got spread around through blogs and forums, where McCain was greatly overmatched by Obama. While moveon.org pulled for Obama, and while Obama raised reams of cash without the restrictions of public financing, guys like Boone Pickens ran ads about windmills, instead of bankrolling third party attacks on Obama. Freedom’s Watch, the main 3rd party GOP group barely registered in this campaign.

    That is problematic because it suggests that the American people, and the folks that bankroll campaigns are so partisan that you can’t select a moderate as the nominee of either of the big parties without losing the organization war (Obama never mobilized the center – he mobilized large numbers of African Americans and young people, two of the same groups of people that backed Kerry in large numbers in 2004).

    2. The media has a politically correct bias
    -I do not make the argument that the media is biased towards the left or the right. Hillary Clinton was just as left-leaning as Obama, yet was cast as being engaged in a bitter negative race-baiting attempt to stop Obama. The issue is not that the censorious media is now so smart that it looks at smears critically. Look at some of the stories that were picked up by respected MSM outlets when Palin was selected (eg. the one about book-banning which became widely believed, though she never banned books). I do think there was some genuine reluctance to criticize Obama for fear of being accused of racism. At the same time, accusing other journalists and politicians of racism oneself, or actively defusing untrue smears of Obama is usually a pretty good and safe way of insulating oneself from criticism.

    It is worth noting that the other bias of the press (in favour of the big story) enabled Obama to be less media-friendly (he charged press agents far more for their spots on the plane than McCain did, and was less accessible). Of course McCain enjoyed those advantages in his 2000 run.

    3. Obama ran a disciplined campaign
    -Obama took a page out of Karl Rove’s playbook in running a campaign with minimal contact with the press, and thus, few mistakes (bittergate was probably Obama’s only fumble of the campaign). The purpose of the official smears of Obama had a clear theme: they suggested that Obama was far to the left of the American mainstream. The more pernicious smears (not taken up by the campaign) painted Obama as an angry black man or a closet muslim. Obama overcame those because he really does not SEEM like an angry left wing radical. On top of that it is hard to prove that he leans one way or the other, because he has virtually no record to speak of (and, moreover, he made calculated flops on Iraq – where he has had at least 3 positions – and FISA).

    The other charge – that Obama lacks experience – probably can be supported with evidence (he was a self-admitted failure as a community organizer, as a lawyer he has never gone to trial, as a professor he published nothing, and as a senator his subcommittee never held a single meeting – somehow he managed two bestselling autobiographies about that). It fell flat, however, because Obama is also a very intelligent man who clearly had command of the issues. Over time the other element of “inexperience” – Obama’s lack of a record – became less important as he became more and more familiar to the American public.

    We are not in an age where smears no longer work. We are in an age where the organizational advantage of the Democrats (with the lion’s share of the young blogosphere behind them), and a press that is wary to be cast as racist for engaging in the wrong criticism, give the Dems a structural advantage over the Republicans. It isn’t a huge advantage though – since both parties are engaged in building 51-49 coalitions (the Rove formula is: grow your base and reach out until you hit a majority of the populace, then stop). Frankly, if you really want to help Obama, you should wake up to this reality, and develop realistic expectations about what kind of president he will be. 60% of Canadians were ready to vote for Paul Martin (in a 5-party race) in 2003. 89% of Americans approved of George W. Bush in 9/11. Diefenbaker and Mulroney won the largest majorities in Canadian history. Today, with something like 80%+ Canadians holding optimistic hopes for Obama (and thankfully fewer Americans), they are already setting a bar of expectations so high that the man cannot hope to meet them.

  18. For anybody that cares to check, this poll suggests a reason Obama “beat the smears”. Namely, most people didn’t hear them (while people were much more familiar with some of Obama’s attacks on McCain):


  19. Obama beat the smears because the MSM did not do their job in providing an independent view of the candiate – but rather they annointed him as the person to redeem and save the US and they were not going to swayed from that view. I truly hope that Obama can achieve all that is expected from him, but he really doesn’t have a track record, hope and change are just words, and I suspect the MSM will be very willing to knock him down after a honeymoon period. But the losers in this are the MSM because they showed their true colours and increasingly people are not going to pay them much attention. They are already losing readership to independent blogs.

  20. Interesting how the first to comment are usually neocons.

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