A Hits B, B Hits A, C Wins?

11/10/2007 02:15 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Read between the lines of some recent reports and it sure sounds
as if negative attack ads will be airing soon. "By December," The Washington Post's Dan
writes this week, "it's likely that television ads in Iowa will be airing that directly attack her
[Hillary Clinton]." Ken Wheaton
of Advertising Age agrees that
"chatter from inside the parties" means "the negative campaigning would start
just around Christmas." Meanwhile, a clever attack ad by the Edwards
campaign posted to YouTube wins plaudits as "a
mini-Internet sensation
." Edwards consultant Joe
mocks the Obama campaign for failing to "take the gloves off" and
says that "asking questions about a candidate's position on the issues is not
attack politics, it's responsible politics."

So with speculation building about a coming negative ad war, here are some
words of advice: In a multi-candidate primary, an attack ad strategy presents
huge risks for the attacker, and not just in Iowa.

Consider the names and races on the following list. What do
they have in common?

All eight emerged as "surprise" winners in competitive
multi-candidate races. All eight surged to victory in the final days of their
respective races as the more heavily favored candidates hammered each other
with negative attack ads. In all but one of these races the pattern was the
same: The two front-running candidate - let's call them Candidate A and
Candidate B - ran attack ads against each other. In each case, the ads
"worked," but in an unexpected way. They moved support away from both A and B
to the benefit of a third Candidate C (the names listed above) that was able to
communicate a mostly positive message that reached voters in the final weeks of
the campaign. When this phenomenon occurred in the Iowa Caucus campaign four
years ago -- a negative exchange between Dick Gephardt and Howard Dean that worked
to the advantage of John Kerry and John Edwards -- the pundits dubbed it "murder suicide."

The one semi-exception to the typical pattern was the 1984 New Hampshire primary in
which John Glenn ran television ads attacking Walter Mondale in the final weeks
of the campaign. As far as I can tell from the historical record (and my own
memory), Mondale never responded with counterpunch ads of his own. According to
Jack Germond and Jules Witcover's Wake
Us When It's Over
, Glenn's attack ads raised Mondale's negatives and
initially helped Glenn narrow Mondale's lead in New Hampshire. However, after Gary Hart's
surprise second place finish in Iowa made him
a viable challenger to Mondale, internal campaign polls in New Hampshire showed Glenn "fading rapidly"
with all the benefit going to Hart.

Yes, as First Read
reminded us recently, voters in focus groups "don't like negative ads" but "that
doesn't mean negative ads don't work." True on both counts. Voters do not like
negative ads, but they work best in general election contests when voters
typically have only two viable choices. Two-way contests are essentially a "zero
sum game
." If A moves support away from B, it goes to A, and vice versa. However,
when voters believe they have a real third choice, the negative ads sometimes
work to the benefit of that third candidate.

Of course, as a wise Republican pollster put it to me
recently, the "necessary corollary" of this pattern is that Candidate C needs
to be more than a passive bystander. That candidate needs "to be enough of a
force field to have some gravity of their own" to pick up the voters that
become disillusioned with the candidates at the top of the ticket. The various
Candidate C's above had achieved critical mass through a combination of many of
the following: Enough paid advertising toward the end of the campaign to
establish solid name recognition, a coherent and differentiating message,
perceived success in campaign debates, late newspaper endorsements and last
minute evidence of growing viability (usually in the form of last minute public
polls showing the candidate gaining and "doing better").

What is clear about the presidential nominating races in
both parties is that several candidates on each side are or may soon be
positioned to play the Candidate C role.

Now for some cautions: First, keep in mind that the
"negative attacks" that typically trigger this phenomenon are paid advertisements that reach a mass audience on broadcast or cable television, not criticism in
debates or speeches. Most if not all of the C candidates listed above
criticized their opponents in debates or public appearances. Negative broadcast
ads are more likely to boomerang than other attacks (including those that
appear only on the Internet) for two reasons: They reach politically
inattentive voters that pay less attention to politics and are typically
harsher in tone than the statements made in speeches or debates. As such, the
gentle chiding in Chris Dodd's recent ads
do not fit the bill.

Second, the list above amounts to a pretty small sample
size, and most of the examples come from Democratic primaries (perhaps reflecting
my own skewed experience as a Democratic pollster). Readers may know of
exceptions to this pattern, and if so, I certainly urge them to leave comments

Third, it is worth noting that John Edwards, should he begin
airing broadcast attack ads, is running behind
both Hillary Clinton and a potential "candidate C" Barack Obama. My own
sense is that only increases the risk for Edwards, but it certainly makes his
situation a bit of a break from the typical pattern.

For all of these reasons, I hesitate to describe the "A hits
B, B hits A, C Wins" pattern as an inviolable "rule." Sometimes, campaigns find
a way to defy the conventional wisdom. My point, again, is that in a
competitive multi-candidate primary, a candidate takes an enormous risk in embarking on a broadcast attack ad strategy.

Partly for that reason, I am guessing that the Edwards
campaign has not yet committed to "going negative" with its Iowa television buy. I have no inside
information, but Clinton's position in Iowa is weaker than
elsewhere, most
show Edwards within single digits of Clinton and Obama and the
Edwards campaign has just started airing its positive ads. For all the bravado,
his consultants know the history as well as anyone. Edwards pollster Harrison
Hickman (my one-time employer) worked on the Glenn campaign in 1984. So I am
guessing that the Edwards campaign is holding fire to see if the combination of
positive television and attacks limited to speeches, debates, Internet ads puts
them in position to win.

We will soon see.