by Jonathan Singer, Tue Apr 29, 2008 at 11:21:45 AM EDT
According to Bloomberg news, this is just what Barack Obama is pledging to do at this juncture.
Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, attempting to regain his momentum after losing the Pennsylvania primary, promised to shun negative campaigning as his race drags on against Hillary Clinton.
Obama, 46, an Illinois senator, began his drive for the nomination with a message of unity and the pledge that he wouldn't run a typical political campaign. Today, Obama said he realized his campaign had strayed in recent weeks.
``I told this to my team, you know, we are starting to sound like other folks, we are starting to run the same negative stuff,'' Obama told a crowd of about 5,000 in Wilmington, North Carolina. ``It shows that none of us are immune from this kind of politics. But the problem is that it doesn't help you.''
This is a rather interesting proposition -- positive, rather than negative, campaigning (and I use that latter term to include not only attack ads but also so-called "contrast" ads that function as a hybrid between positive and negative campaigning).
Currently, there are a lot of folks saying that they think Obama needs to change his message, or that he needs to develop a new stump speech, or that he needs to tinker with his campaign in some other fashion. The thought behind this is that although he is still on the inside track to securing the Democratic nomination -- it is still difficult to conceive of a way of Hillary Clinton to put together the necessary number of delegates from those remaining to be taken -- the fact that Obama has not been able to put Clinton away to this point suggests that he needs to create a new narrative, to change the storyline.
Going all positive could potentially do that. And there is at least some anecdotal evidence to suggest that such a tactic can work (even if it is risky). Back in early 1996, there was a special election to fulfill the Senate seat vacated by Oregon's Republican Senator Bob Packwood, who was forced to resign in the wake of a sexual harassment scandal. The race featured two well-funded candidates -- then-Congressman Ron Wyden on the Democratic side and then-state Senate President Gordon Smith on the Republican side -- and saw a significant amount of third party expenditures as well given that the race was seen as a possible bellwether for the upcoming presidential and congressional elections (as well as an opportunity for the Democrats to win back at least one Senate seat ahead of the party's effort that fall to reclaim the chamber). Unsurprisingly, the campaign turned negative -- and very negative at that. In the wake of the back and forth and back and forth, it appeared as though Smith had the advantage and was heading to victory.
But then, Wyden opted for a novel approach: Going all-positive for the duration of the campaign. He began running ads touting his positive campaign, he held ice cream socials -- and in doing so put his opponent on his heels. While Smith looked overly negative and petty, Wyden came off as the bigger man, more Senatorial, more worthy of support. In the end, Wyden beat Smith by a 2-point margin, marking the first time a Democrat won a Senate election in the state since 1962.
Now of course this anecdote isn't a perfect or even particularly great match for the current race between Obama and Clinton. The Wyden-Smith race was a special election, not a primary; it was a inter-party contest rather than an intra-party contest; and it was a Senate election instead of a Presidential race. Perhaps more importantly, it was an all vote-by-mail election, and with the exception of the upcoming Oregon primary, no other contest will feature such a system. What's more, even if the 1996 race were more like the current contest, there's no indication that the previous results would be replicated today -- and in fact there are great potential risks to taking down negative ads, which include allowing one's opponent to define themselves while still enabling the opponent to attempt to define the candidate going positive.
Nevertheless, the Wyden-Smith contest is instructive inasmuch as it shows that a candidate can change the dynamics of a close contest by going positive. Polling indicates that in that race Wyden pulled drastically ahead in late balloting -- just those voters who saw him go all positive and Smith remain negative. (Here's more polling also suggesting this move gave Wyden a tangible advantage.)
So no doubt it would be a risky move for Obama to go all positive. And such a move would require not only the candidate himself to stay on message but also the campaign to refrain from running harsh contrast ads and negative mailers, something that I would have to see to believe (and I'm not holding my breath just at the moment). That said, if Obama is truly interested in changing the dynamic of the race for the Democratic nomination and is already leaning towards adopting a positive campaign stance, he might be well served by following in the footsteps of now-Senator Wyden by turning this race on its head, putting the ball in Clinton's court and saying I'm going to stop the negative campaigning at all levels of the campaign, will you too?