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.