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Anatomy of a Campaign: Mudslinging, Smearing and the Art of O-R

04/29/2008 07:08 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Shortly before the Democratic primary in Pennsylvania, Senator Clinton's campaign underwent yet another shake-up with the departure of chief strategist, Mark Penn, just when polls indicated the lead she held over Senator Obama in Pennsylvania was dwindling. As Senator Clinton persists in her quest for the Democratic presidential nomination, notwithstanding some calls for her withdrawal from the race, I wondered what new line of attack or strategy Camp Clinton would adopt against her rival, especially given Senator Obama's stated claim to refrain from 'old school politics'.

Recently I read Stephen Mark's Confessions of a Political Hitman and, given the mudslinging on the part of Camp Clinton, I've become fixated on political strategy. Negative campaigns, attack ads and "opposition" research (O-R as it is more commonly known among political junkies) have long been the staple of political campaigns. "Negative campaigning is as old as the republic", said Hank Sheinkopf, a Political Consultant (D). Mr. Sheinkopf was a panelist at a forum I attended two Thursdays ago -- Slinging Mud: How Low Will We Go In 2008? -- hosted by Baruch College's School of Public Affairs.

Alex Castellanos, fellow panelist and Political Consultant (R), made a distinction. According to Mr. Castellanos, "mudslinging is negative advertising that does not work". Mr. Castellanos draws the line when the attacks become personal or against and individual's character. He espouses "Alex's Laws of Politics" or, stated otherwise, "The Law of the Car Keys". In other words, if I give you my car keys, what are the issues involved? Where will you be taking me? And can I trust you to take me there?

Camp Clinton has unleashed a barrage of negative ads against Senator Obama, attacking his pastor the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr., accusing Senator Obama of plagiarizing speeches from Massachussetts Governor, Deval Patrick, and insinuated that Senator Obama is a Muslim. The most salient piece of negative advertising that most readily comes to mind is her "It's 3 a.m." advertisement, loosely referred to as the "Red Phone Ad". In the ad, the narrator says, "It's 3 a.m. and your children are safe and asleep. But there's a phone in the white House, and it's ringing. Something's happening in the world. Your vote will decide who answers that call. Whether it's someone who already knows the world's leaders, knows the military - someone tested and ready to lead in a dangerous world. It's 3 a.m. and your children are safe and asleep. Who do you want answering the phone?"

Mr. Sheinkopf wondered why Senator Obama did not anticipate or respond to the red phone ad. Fellow panelist Montague Kern, Author and Professor at Rutgers University, felt that Senator Obama did in fact respond (although she made a distinction between long-term and short-term). In Ms. Kern's view, Senator Obama responded quickly with an ad that said, "I see things differently". In Mr. Castellanos' estimation, the ad said Hillary was 'tough', Obama was a 'wuss' and Senator Obama's silence confirmed her position. Hillary is perceived as 'daddy bear' and Obama, as the consensus builder, is perceived as 'mommy bear'. To this extent, the ad was effective.

The red phone advertisement ran in Texas. A Fox poll conducted from February 26 to 28 showed that whites favored Senator Obama over Senator Clinton 47 percent to 44 percent. By March 4, exit polls showed a 12-point swing to 56 percent of white votes toward Senator Clinton.

So as we counted down the days to the Pennsylvania primary, I was resolved to viewing more negative advertising. According to Ms. Kern, "Negative ads are here with us and help win elections. They play a positive role in that they help the underdog, but do not benefit women and minorities due to the association of images". Nevertheless, I was taken aback by the tactics to which Camp Clinton resorted. Senator Clinton pounced on comments made by Senator Obama at a recent California fundraiser about small town voters who are bitter over their economic circumstances, and "cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them". Senator Clinton used the comments to portray Senator Obama as out of touch with ordinary Americans - in particular, white working class voters.

Last Wednesday, during the debate at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, Senator Clinton tried to put Senator Obama on the defensive - a ploy, very obvious, to raise doubts about his electability. By all indications, her strategy failed since the target audience - the superdelegates - remained unpersuaded.

As a last ditch effort before votes were cast on Tuesday, in a television advertisement invoking images of Osama bin Laden, Senator Clinton raised concerns about Senator Obama's ability to lead in a time of crisis. The advertisement shows Osama bin Laden, images of the stock market crash of 1929, the attack on Pearl Harbor, the fall of the Berlin Wall and Hurricane Katrina. Although the ad never mentions Senator Obama by name, it ends by asking, "Who do you think has what it takes?"

Senator Clinton's victory in Pennsylvania may be a temporary boost to her campaign and help with a much needed infusion of cash. But the tone and tenor of the negative ads do nothing to enhance her standing, since polls indicate she is viewed unfavorably by an increasingly large number of voters, while Senator Obama leads in the popular vote and delegate count. All sights are set on Indiana and North Carolina. The lingering question is, "How low will the Clintons go in 2008?"