The chief operative behind then-candidate Barack Obama's attempt to combat the smears he faced on the campaign trail has penned a memo for Democratic candidates around the country, advising them how to deal with similar attacks as the election approaches.
Will Bunnett, who was a senior e-mail writer and producer on the Obama for America campaign and the overseer of the Fight the Smears microsite, advises Democrats in a "working-paper" memo to engage their detractors rather than sit idly by.
"The number one rule of smear fighting is don't let a bad narrative about your candidate settle in. Because the anxiety a smear creates leads people to seek information, you have a window to make sure some of what they receive counters the smear."
But Bunnett's counsel is more nuanced than just arguing for direct engagement. For example, he urges candidates not to give up "refuting the facts of the smear."
"When a smear risks catching on, work on beating back the fear underlying the smear (like the fear that John Kerry is less than who he says he is)... You're more likely to successfully update the 'story' someone has in their head of John Kerry by appealing to someone's gut with a more generic character defense or counterattack than by peppering them with facts about medals and commendations."
He also stressed that smear targets frame their push-back "in moral language."
"In the [Fight The Smears] context, that means it's not "rumors are going around that Barack is a Muslim." Instead it's "shameful, shadowy attackers have been lying about Barack's religion." That second version involves morality in the forms of shame, cowardice, and deception and uses active voice to give people more of a sense of an opponent."
Culled from experiences of the Obama and Kerry campaigns, the memo's content provides an interesting window into the Democratic psyche heading into the closing months of the 2010 election. Not only does the party remain incredibly wary of Republican campaign tactics, they seem cognizant that the Internet community that helped propel them to office in the past two cycles could now be the conduit for the rumor mongering that facilitates their downfall.
The pushback advice is heavy on political psychology and broad messaging tactics as opposed to individual instructions for smears to come. But that may be because the memo is anticipatory in nature and meant for broad usage for any candidate who wants it.
"It is certainly preemptive," said Larry Huynh, a colleague of Bunnett's at Trilogy Interactive who contributed to the memo. "The point is to get it out before because people need to understand how to deal with this in an effective way because we expect this to be a pretty dirty cycle."