06/18/2012 05:42 pm ET Updated Jun 18, 2012

In The Age Of Super PACs, Political Operatives Mull Going Positive

WASHINGTON -- While positive campaigning is not a panacea for a candidate seeking to neutralize a well-funded opponent, there are upsides to 'going nice,' Bill James, the guru of Moneyball, advised in an interview with The Huffington Post.

For a campaign that is short on cash and in need of drawing a contrast, few gambles exist that are likely to result in political pay-off. But James, who helped develop the system of statistical analysis used in baseball known as sabermetrics, suggested that a candidate who is going to be outspent has little other option but to maneuver his or her way above the fray.

"If you're outspent in a campaign, what you absolutely cannot do is start a pissing contest, pardon my French," James wrote in an email. "If you're outspent and you start talking about your opponent being corrupt and senile, you're in BIG trouble, because he's got a lot more guns than you have."

"Talk about your opponent in the nicest terms that you CAN, in order to take certain weapons away from him," he added. "If you're speaking well of your opponent and your opponent is savaging you, there is a chance he comes off looking like an ass and you can win the election."

The line of advice spurred a bit of back-and-forth between several political operatives who were asked for their reactions. Some thought it was uninformed, others expressed curiosity while still others argued that it was idealistic and unfeasible. Yet James' suggestion isn't entirely unprecedented.

"McCain did that in 2008 in the GOP primary," recalled Frank Luntz, the famed Republican wordsmith responsible for the messaging behind the "Contract with America." "It lasted for about three months and brought him back from destruction to frontrunner. He didn't stay positive, but it lasted long enough."

"The House GOP did it in 1994 around the rollout of the contract," Luntz added. "Again, they didn't stay positive (it lasted 3 weeks) but it made a difference at the time."

For Luntz, the theory of positivity is workable but limited. "No campaign can take a barrage of negative without responding -- and then you get into a fight with the press over the definition of 'negative,'" he said. "It's a good strategy out of the gate but very difficult to maintain if the opposition is well funded."

This was the consensus of some operatives on the other side of the ideological divide. Veterans of Tim Kaine's 2005 gubernatorial campaign in Virginia recalled that it was a tactical decision to maintain a positive tone even as Kaine's opponent, Jerry Kilgore, was accusing him of opposing the death penalty for Adolf Hitler.

"I think what we are seeing from some of these super PACs is they are learning the wrong lessons," said Mo Elleithee, a longtime adviser to Kaine who served as communications director on that campaign. "They are going even more over the top with the language and rhetoric in part because there is no accountability. And so I think the challenge for campaigns is to figure out how to break through that noise. Sometimes softer ends up being louder."

But while Kaine may have stayed tonally measured, he went on the attack when it served his interest. He also wasn't outspent, as many Democrats will likely be in the super PAC era, meaning he was secure in the knowledge that he couldn't be buried under a negative barrage of attack ads.

Recollections of how a campaign played out, moreover, often differ depending on the person doing the reflecting. Campaign veterans like to think of the races they run as issue-oriented and fair. Rarely is it acknowledged that negative advertising has a purpose and can be highly effective. Mitt Romney's 2012 primary campaign was a testament to this theory. And in a lengthy New York magazine article, Frank Rich made that very point, arguing that the Obama campaign should have gone after Romney for his tenure at Bain Capital harder and earlier.

The question of how effective it would be for a candidate to adopt a friendlier stance is hard to answer, largely because there haven't been many case studies. Don Green, a political scientist at Columbia University who has attempted to measure the effectiveness of different campaign tactics, argued that it was "easy to dream up" theories about going nice. But there are obvious limitations.

"It might be the thing to talk about once you have an audience," Green said, underscoring his belief that it doesn't matter if candidates go positive if they're relatively unknown. He added that his former colleague, Texas Gov. Rick Perry's political guru Dave Carney, "would say if you do something spectacular you might be able to get some free media. But the media coverage of politics tends to be minimal, and even then it tends to be about scandal. So it is hard to break through the coverage, especially if you are a down-ballot candidate."

Carney, for his part, said that running a positive race "might work" depending "on what the other side is doing and if they have vulnerabilities."

"I did a campaign once for a special election for a state senate race where we proposed a clean campaign pledge and used the opponent's refusal to rebut his attacks, and we won in a 40 percent GOP district that had not elected a GOPer in thirty years," Carney said. "It's not quite the same. Campaigns are not zero-sum games."

But for every story of positive campaigning that worked, there are more tales of times it flopped. Former Rep. Lynn Rivers (D-Mich.) decided to try nice as a political strategy when, after re-districting, she was forced into a Democratic primary with Rep. John Dingell. The campaign made two calculations: it had to introduce Rivers and her story to draw even with Dingell, and that negative attacks would not cut into Dingell's support and threatened to create a backlash among voters who had backed him for years.

Dingell showed no restraint, accusing Rivers of being one of Congress' most ineffective members. He won by 18 percentage points.

"Now there's also a case -- I made it at the time -- that given the heavy turnout, nothing would have worked against Dingell," said Mark Blumenthal, the pollster for the Rivers campaign who is now the senior polling editor for The Huffington Post. "Had we gone more negative with our advertising, we probably still would have lost. Perhaps. But nevertheless, this was one of the best-case scenarios for going and staying positive I'd ever seen, and it failed pretty miserably."

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