02/07/2012 05:13 pm ET Updated Apr 08, 2012

Negative Campaigning: A Strategic Decision?

Like everyone else, I've been watching the Republican presidential race, and I am fascinated by the critiques of the candidates. Up until the Florida primary and Nevada caucus, the main objection to Mitt Romney seems to have been that he is bland (this aside from the cold-hearted venture capitalist objection which seemed to come late in the game). Just watch any recent episode of Saturday Night Live and you can find Romney skewered for his humdrum persona. Whole blogs have been written about his boring-ness. Pieces have appeared on the nightly news about his lack of pizzazz. But why does boring even matter in your choice of candidate to vote for? Shouldn't experience, track record, qualifications matter so much more?
Apparently not.

The Romney puzzle got me thinking about Al Gore in 2000 and Hillary Clinton in 2008 and why they didn't succeed despite their clear edge in experience. Gore had spent eight years as Vice President under one of the most popular presidents in history and was running against George Bush, former Governor, C-Student, largely failed businessman unable to properly pronounce the word nuclear. In retrospect, it seems almost impossible that the race could have even been close. But the public found Gore bland. Bland like Romney. Too intellectual. Too dry. Bush inspired emotion. He got everyone riled up. Gore applied reason. And that seems to be a bad strategy in a presidential election.

The same issue seems to have applied to Hilary Clinton in her race against Obama. There is no question that Clinton had the experiential edge. Plus one could assume that a vote for Hilary would also be a vote for Bill and the public seems to think he did a pretty good job. But people just didn't like Hilary. She seemed too emotionless. Too dry. She didn't get us all revved up, inspired to believe that change was coming. And that was Obama's strength.

And that led me as far back as Nixon and his brown suit in the 1960 presidential debates, the brown suit that made him lose. How could a brown suit even matter that much? Why is a red tie so damn important?

Who you vote for in a presidential election should be based on who will do the best job for you in the long run. You are supposed to vote in your best interest, particularly your economic best interest. But voters don't do that. They vote their emotions even though the emotional vote often conflicts with the vote that is best economically.

And that is how candidates should probably want it. Emotional decisions are not rational decisions. And the president's job is complicated. In fact, really too complicated for the average Joe to really grasp the short and long-term consequences of a candidates platform. To fully understand so-and-so's job plan, whether it will really reduce unemployment, stimulate the economy, etc, would take a degree in economics and talking to a lot of experts. Our economy is too complex to understand in a sound bite and that is about all the time the average American has to digest it all.
So a candidate who hits the hot-button emotional issues seems to be a smart candidate. If there is one thing you can learn from a poker table it is that players who get emotional make really rash decisions.

As much as we might not want to admit it, the negative ad campaigns we have seen from the Romney Camp in Florida and Nevada might be just what the Romney campaign needed. Romney had been campaigning on the issues. And we found him dull. Now he is on the attack. Screw being rational. History has shown us that voters respond better to candidates who hit us viscerally than ones who hit us intellectually.

The effectiveness for Romney of the shift is really the fault of how voters make decisions.