Yesterday morning, the New York Times wrote an editorial widely decrying tactics used in the recently completed Pennsylvania primary. The article specifically focused on Hillary Clinton and her use of negative campaign tactics to undermine Senator Barack Obama in the waning days of that state's contest. The Times criticized the tone and content of the campaign, focusing particularly on the rhetoric and advertisements of Senator Clinton.
The Times is wrong because, but for that communication, the primary almost certainly would have been closer than it proved to be. Exit polls showed that while both candidates were seen as having leveled unfair attacks, the 46% who said that negative advertisements impacted their vote broke overwhelmingly for Senator Clinton.
Senator Clinton's margin had dropped to low, single-digits earlier last week when she was in danger of being overwhelmed by Senator Obama's 2.5-3 to 1 advantage in media advertising and campaign spending. Senator Clinton then successfully framed the race as a referendum on Senator Obama and his values, particularly with regards to his comments about Americans being bitter and clinging to guns and religion as a means of dealing with that bitterness. By doing so, she was able to win substantial victories, not only with working-class voters, but with working-class male voters, a key constituency that she needed to win. Her supporters were clearly energized, as she raised $3.5 million in the hours after winning the primary, marking her best overnight performance ever.
The lessons of Pennsylvania are clear for her going forward. She 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.
Having done 15 years of successful Democratic campaigns in Indiana, I can say with confidence that negative campaigning works effectively with Hoosier voters. Voters in the southern part of the state are very much akin to southern white voters, who have given an overwhelmingly large amount of support to Senator Clinton. They will be quite susceptible to her values-based argument about the flawed candidacy of Senator Obama. Voters in the northwestern part of the state, particularly white, working-class voters, will also be responsive to this appeal, along with Senator Clinton's appeal on economic issues relating to the almost-certain recession. Thus, experience and my own political history suggest that this is the only direction and approach Senator Clinton can take to maximize her chance of success.
There will be ample time once the nominee is decided upon, most likely in June, for the Democratic Party to come together. With only around 20% of each candidate's supporters defecting to John McCain, there is every indication that when the two candidates consolidate once the primary season is over, the Democratic support will coalesce around the nominee. It will further coalesce if we have an Obama-Clinton or Clinton-Obama ticket, which is increasingly likely. But for now, Senator Clinton has in large part adopted the advice offered in my Washington Post op-ed piece last week. If she is to make the most of her chance for success, she must continue with the same tactics.
Carly Cooperman contributed to this article.