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Brace For It: Spring May Be Attack-Ad Season

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Contrary to what supporters of both candidates might think, this primary has been a relatively mild affair compared to past election cycles; there have been some very tense moments, to be sure, but both candidates have been containing themselves. In the fall, when he was trailing, many reproached Barack Obama from holding back too much; over the past few months, many Clinton supporters have wondered while Hillary's campaign has not gone more negative against Barack -- especially after the 3am ad was credited for helping her clinch comeback victories on March 4th and was supposed to herald the start of a more negative strategy. Sure, the 3am ad was controversial; and so were Hillary's spots urging Obama to debate in Wisconsin. But all that was little compared to what we are used to seeing in American politics. Even third party groups have largely remained out of negativity -- UNITE's anti-Clinton radio ad back in Nevada is the most controversial third party ad I can think of.

Similarly, John McCain has managed to go through months of campaigning with barely any ad airing against him. This started in the primary, of course. Mitt Romney tried to air some contrast ads (I sill refuse to call what Romney aired attack ads, especially when compared to McCain's much more ad hominem spots against him); and Huckabee was refusing to scratch McCain at all. Since McCain has emerged as the nominee, Democrats have failed to put together a significant advertisement war against him, even though it could have wounded McCain for good since the Arizona Senator does not yet have the organization and resources to retaliate.

Today, however, more traditional attack ads appeared to make a come back. Clinton launched an ad today (you can view it here) using Pennsylvania voters to condemn Barack Obama's San Fransisco remarks. Starting with a transcript of the comments, the ad continues with people airing their indignation: "I was very insulted by Barack Obama," says one woman. "I'm not clinging to my faith out of frustration and bitterness. I find that my faith is very uplifting," says another.

Note also that the part of Obama's comments that are shown here are not the parts about bitterness but about the clinging ("Barack Obama said that people in small towns 'cling to guns or religion...as a way to explain their frustrations...'). This is exactly what I had suggested yesterday by noting that there are two issues at hand here, the first being the use of the word bitter and the second the suggestion of economic determinism. I will not recap my entire argument, but I did suggest that the second issue is the one on which Obama could be potentially vulnerable and the Clinton campaign at least in this ad seems to have abandoned the attempts to go after the word "bitter."

Hillary Clinton knows that bittergate is one of the last chances she will have to topple Obama. Not only that, but bittergate has precipitated her need to make a move by making Pennsylvania the test of whether Obama can be competitive among blue collar voters; Clinton is being forced to go all-out making the argument that her opponent is unelectable now. If Obama passes the test of April 22nd and stays competitive, Clinton might have used her most useful argument against him.

Meanwhile, Progressive Media USA, the group that is currently being formed to wage an expensive effort to define McCain before he gets to introduce himself, is launching its first ad against the Arizona Senator. The ad (you can view it here) features footage of Bush and McCain saying practically the same thing on the economy and professing their conviction that the economic conditions are good; the ad suggests that (1) McCain is out of touch and (2) McCain is just a third term for Bush.

This is airing only in select markets in DC... so it is not at all a buy that is meant to move numbers in swing states. But the group has just started getting organized and raising money. This is a way for them to show that (1) they have already developed and prepared ads, so all they need is the money to air them and (2) reach out to prospective donors (George Soros can only do so much) to convince them that this is a worthy cause. We will know in the coming weeks how successful their organizing efforts are, as any buy the group makes in, say, Ohio, Virginia, or Pennsylvania will be immediately dissected.


Read more at Daniel Nichanian's blog, Campaign Diaries.