Some Democratic officials are cringing over the negative tone that the primary race between Sens. Obama and Clinton has taken, worried about party cohesion in the fall. But if Doug Schoen, the prominent pollster and former adviser to President Bill Clinton, had been steering the reigns of the Clinton campaign he would have advised the Senator to have gone "negative" much earlier and more often.
"Absolutely, I think they should have done it earlier," said Schoen, the estranged partner of Mark Penn, and founder of Penn Schoen and Berland Associates. "I think they waited too long. And I think they've seen the benefits in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Texas."
Schoen wouldn't elaborate on whom, exactly, was to blame for that decision, saying he was not working with the campaign. But going forward he hoped that the point had been made. As he wrote in a separate blog for the Huffington Post on Thursday:
"The lessons of Pennsylvania are clear... [Clinton] must continue on a negative or a comparative theme if she is to win the upcoming primaries. After running a negative campaign, candidates are frequently tempted to turn back to a positive track to avoid criticism from the media. Given the deficit that Senator Clinton faces in states won, the popular vote and pledged delegates, she does not have this luxury. She must continue to draw contrasts with Senator Obama, raise questions about the nature and extent of his associations with Reverend Wright and terrorist leader William Ayers, and raise more questions about his values in comparison with hers."
But didn't this all have a horrific downside, mainly Clinton's low approval and trustworthy ratings? Yes, Schoen argued, but it was a step (or electoral leap-of-faith) that the Senator had to make. "When you go negative you take the benefits and the risks," he said. "And that may well be one of the risks and it will depend on how you go negative and what you say. You literally pay your money and take your chances."
Indeed, Schoen, who authored the book "Declaring Independence: The Beginning of the End of the Two-Party System," sees a "self-correcting" mechanism to negative campaigning that ultimately determines the flow of the race. And, as such, he argued that Obama, too, should highlight "the ample issues" where he and Clinton contrasted. If the voters think either candidate went too far, they will let it be known at the polls.
"I think there is a beneficial aspect for the body politic. We air our differences, we present contrasts, we make clear to the American people where we agree and disagree and where the flashpoints are," he said. "So I think that going negative, going positive, going comparative, it is all good, there is no acceptable or unacceptable. And more debate is better than less debate. That is my posture."
There were some ethical lines that Schoen cautioned shouldn't be crossed. "I wouldn't say everything is fair game. Racism, homophobia and sexism are not appropriate or constructive," he said. And if the Democrats were to avoid these sensitive areas, in the long run, there would be enough time to get their house in order.
"I think there is time to repair," he said, "and now it is even more compelling that one way or another they have to run together: Clinton-Obama or Obama-Clinton."