Former Republican Presidential candidate Mike Huckabee sternly warned the GOP that demonizing Barack Obama won't work and it would be a big blunder to even try. Huckabee issued the warning because he's worried that in going negative against Obama the GOP risks voter backlash. Obama's rival John McCain agrees. He has repeatedly pledged that his campaign will be clean.
McCain's clean campaign vow and Huckabee's warning against going negative won't mean much too some GOP-connected 527 independent expenditure committees (uncharitably, "hit squads"). Under an IRS loophole independent expenditure committees can get funds from any source with no limit. They can spend the money pretty much anyway they want. The instant it became clear that Obama would likely get the Democratic nod a few independent committees swung into action. They ran campaign ads in a couple of primary states knocking him for his tie to his controversial former pastor Jeremiah Wright and questioned his patriotism. When things really heat up in the fall, the committees will have a mini-Fort Knox storehouse of privately funneled dollars to slam Obama on any and every big, petty, and almost always personal attack, issue they choose. Other than publicly disavowing any of the digs that hit Obama below the belt, McCain can't do anything about them.
The question, though, is does demonizing a candidate really work? The two best known examples are the Willie Horton hit against Democratic presidential contender Michael Dukakis in 1988 and the Swift Boat blindside of Democratic presidential contender John Kerry in 2004. One stoked the fears of crime (Dukakis). The other planted doubts about character (Kerry). In both instances, they worked.
Even without these extreme cases, there's evidence that going negative can work. Though surveys show that the overwhelming majority of voters abhor personal smears against candidates and are turned off by them, far too many voters also can be influenced by the negative stuff they hear about a candidate. The trick to implant the negative belief is that the ads must be directly linked to the candidate's political position on the issues, style or even personality. In April the GOP-connected Legacy Committee loudly announced that it planned to hammer Obama as being soft on crime in attack ads in several states.
The committee tied this softer version of the Horton attack on him directly to his vote in the Illinois state legislature against expanding the death penalty for gang related murders. The law was superfluous and political pandering since there were already tough laws on the books that proscribed the death penalty for these types of atrocious crimes. And Obama has publicly stated his support of the death penalty for certain "heinous" crimes including gang related murders.
Yet, Obama's vote, and the fact that he's a liberal Democrat, gave the hit committee just enough of a hook to hinge their ad on and hope that the soft on crime tag on him would stick. In the fall, the committees almost certainly will dredge up some of the old stuff about Wright, Obama's youthful self-admitted drug use, and financial dealings with convicted Chicago financier Tony Rezko They will once more mangle out of context, or flat out manufactured, quips by his wife Michelle about racial matters.
The more highbrow committees will work him over as being too liberal and too soft on national security concerns (with more subtle digs at his patriotism). Then there's the inexperience label that Obama's been saddled with from the start of his campaign. That will be tossed out repeatedly with the hope that it will imprint him as a greenhorn who will bumble and stumble on policy issues if entrusted with the highest office; in other words a Democratic version of Bush.
The one potential hit issue that the committees will tread gingerly on is race. It has derailed a few black candidates in past elections that were thought to be shoo-in winners in head to head contests with white opponents. But though race was brought up with Michelle, it won't be used against him. It's simply too sensitive and risky a ploy and would likely backfire anyway. Obama has not made an issue of race. Indeed, the appeal of his candidacy has been its all inclusive message. The majority of voters would likely be outraged if race was made an issue.
Obama and McCain have on occasion talked about reining in the 527 committees. In part they want to do it to make sure they control the themes and message of their campaigns, and in part to make sure that donor dollars flow directly from their supporters to their campaigns. But both also know how the rules of campaign spending work. One rule is that anyone can form an expenditure committee, raise funds, and spend the money pretty much the way they want.
Huckabee then can admonish the hit committees not to demonize Obama all he wants. Unfortunately, his admonition will fall on deaf ears.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book is The Ethnic Presidency: How Race Decides the Race to the White House (Middle Passage Press, February 2008).
Follow Earl Ofari Hutchinson on Twitter: www.twitter.com/earlhutchinson