On Negative Advertising

Mark Penn takes to The Politico this week in defense of negative advertising, including the "3 a.m." ad his team at the Clinton campaign produced, writing that "[c]lever negative advertising works." I think that's right, to an extent (though it does surprise me at least a bit to be writing here that I think Penn is correct). But I do think it misses something -- that clever negative advertising can work, not that it always does.

A professor of mine, David Menefee-Libey (who actually helped turn me on to blogs back in the early part of this decade), once analogized negative advertisements to a pitcher throwing over to first base to keep the runner honest. Whenever a pitcher makes such a move, the fans groan a bit, and if the pitcher does it too often, they may start to boo. However, if the pitcher doesn't throw over to first base, a runner may be able to get too great of a lead, even to the point at which he is more able to steal second -- which would draw even louder boos from the crowd. In other words, the move is effective and necessary, but it is one that isn't particularly appreciated by the fans -- and if used too much can actually annoy fans nearly as much as giving up a stolen base.

Similarly, negative ads -- or contrast ads, however you define them -- are necessary in politics. Without putting your opponent on the defensive -- keeping them honest, just as a pitcher does to a runner on first base by throwing over to the first baseman from time to time -- their path to victory becomes easier (just as it's easier for the runner to steal first base). But there's a catch to this rule, one that Penn misses (and one that I think the McCain campaign is missing, too): If you go too negative, it can actually be counterproductive, and be nearly as ineffective as running no negative ads whatsoever.

The McCain campaign has indeed been "clever," as Penn puts it, in their hits on Barack Obama. They have been able to get their meme out to the public -- with the great help of the Beltway's establishment media, who has given the ads at least treble the airtime that the campaign paid for -- and shifted some attention in the race.

But John McCain's strategy isn't wholly effective here. It's not clear, for instance, that Obama's numbers -- whether nationally or in the key swing states -- have actually moved down significantly. What's more, although the ads may have gone to some length in helping coalesce the Republican base -- after all, there's nothing like antagonizing enemy to rally the troops -- there is little evidence that McCain's numbers have moved upwards, either.

It may be too soon to see the real movement; it could be that the damage to Obama is long-term, not short-term. But from the vantage of today, about two weeks into the McCain campaign's fiercely negative onslaught against Obama, it's hard to see any tangible proof that the effort has been working (and no, changing the sentiments of Joe Scarborough or Mark Halperin doesn't count). In fact, during the time that the McCain campaign has been investing a serious amount of its time -- and money -- in trying to belittle Obama and his supporters, McCain has almost entirely shied away from presenting any message about his own vision of the country to the American voter. This opportunity cost cannot be overlooked.

McCain will have time to lay out his agenda moving forward. But at the same time as he has been dealing in banalities, Obama has been responding by linking McCain to George W. Bush -- a hit that has the potential to be (and seemingly is) significantly more effective -- while at the same time laying out his own positive vision for the country. And in the end, merely being clever or grabbing the attention of those inside the Beltway isn't necessarily the way to win an election.

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Obama Up 7 Points in Unprompted Head-to-Head

One of the basic features of most polling is the offering of choices to respondents: Do you prefer X or Y, would you vote for Republican Jane Doe or Democrat John Smith, etc. While this model does give an interesting look at the state of affairs -- particularly in the case of elections, as candidates are listed on ballots -- it can also be interesting, perhaps even more so, to see how respondents answer when they are not given answers from which to choose. Gallup did just that this past week, and the numbers it released today are fairly interesting:

While Barack Obama is able to perform in the range of where he polls in more traditional surveys, suggesting that his base of support is hard and deep, there is a bit more drop off for John McCain. Specifically, while McCain tends to poll between about 41 percentage points and about 43 percentage points, depending on how the question is asked and who is included among the choices, when his name is not given to respondents he manages just 38 percent support. Comparing the numbers above to the latest Gallup daily tracking poll, which has shown the same 47 percent to 42 percent spread in favor of Obama the last two days, and three of the last four, McCain is down 4 points to Obama's 2 points.

This difference isn't necessarily statistically significant, and it's always dangerous to read too much into a single poll. However, it is interesting that Obama is able to hold his supporters even when they aren't given his name specifically as a choice while McCain has more difficulty doing so -- yet another seeming indication of the relative disparity in intensity of support between the two candidates.

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Second Liberal Cong. GOPers Ousted in 2006 Endorses Obama

Back in February, former liberal Republican Senator Lincoln Chafee endorsed Barack Obama for President -- a story that garnered a bit of media attention, though certainly not as much as the ongoing saga of Joe Lieberman's political relationship with John McCain. Today brings news that former Iowa Republican Congressman Jim Leach, who like Chafee voted against the Iraq War and who was generally left of center on a number of issues (though was a reliable vote for his party on the organization of the House), is joining the chorus of Republicans for Obama.

According to a source in the Obama campaign, former Iowa Congressman Jim Leach -- a Republican -- will be endorsing Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama this morning.  Leach, as you may recall, lost his bid for re-election in 2006 after three decades representing portions of eastern Iowa in congress.  Leach was considered a "moderate" Republican and was a backer of campaign finance reform.  Leach did not accept campaign contributions from political action committees.

Leach isn't the only GOPer to add his name to the effort.

Republican Mayor Jim Whitaker [of Fairbanks, Alaska] has said he is endorsing Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama.

"My goal is to let Republicans have a clear understanding that their right to vote should not be restricted by any party affiliation," the borough mayor said. He said the economic and political challenges facing the state and country are broader than political parties alone can address and suggested Republicans should consider crossing party lines by focusing on the strongest candidate this year.

Here's The Times on the broader effort:

Led by a former Bush fund-raiser and a former U.S. Senator who bolted the G.O.P. several years ago, a group of current and former Republicans disenchanted with Senator John McCain and supportive of Senator Barack Obama are banding together to start a "Republicans for Obama" effort.

Rita Hauser, a New York philanthropist who raised money for both George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, is helping to organize the push to draw Republicans away from Mr. McCain and will serve as a spokeswoman for the group, alongside former U.S. Senator Lincoln Chafee, of Rhode Island, who was one of the most moderate Republicans in the Senate and became an independent after he lost his seat in 2006.

Now I'm not sure that The Times knows the definition of the word "several," because someone who left the Republican Party less than two years ago did not leave the party "several years ago," but the article does underscore one of the aspects of the Obama candidacy that drew so many to him: His ability to transcend some of the political fissures in the country today and redraw the map. While Obama may be weaker among some segments of the Democratic Party than other previous Democratic nominees, he is clearly stronger in others. The fact that Obama is seriously competing not only for states like Virginia and Colorado but even Alaska and North Dakota is a real testament to this, as is this latest news story.

He's not there yet, because top-level endorsements do not assure the support of everyday voters. But at the same time none of this can really hurt Obama -- particularly in Alaska or Iowa, where two of the latest endorsements emerged from.

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McCain's Plagiarism Problem

It's never a good sign when a presidential candidate is caught cribbing foreign policy notes from Wikipedia -- particularly when that candidate is trying to put himself forward as the more serious and experienced choice in the realm of foreign policy.

A Wikipedia editor emailed Political Wire to point out some similarities between Sen. John McCain's speech today on the crisis in Georgia and the Wikipedia article on the country Georgia. Given the closeness of the words and sentence structure, most would consider parts of McCain's speech to be derived directly from Wikipedia.

First instance:

one of the first countries in the world to adopt Christianity as an official religion (Wikipedia)


one of the world's first nations to adopt Christianity as an official religion (McCain)

Taegan Goddard has a couple more examples of this over at the link above for those interested, and they are interesting.

But taking a step back, it's always interesting to think about these stories from the perspective of the shoe being on the other foot -- what would the reaction have been had this story come out in relation to the other candidate. In this case, what would have happened had Barack Obama, not John McCain, been caught cheating on the 3 AM test by appropriating from Wikipedia? Heck, what would have happened if a college student, or even a sixth grader, had been exposed for such actions?

This is a major league embarrassment, one that goes a long way towards undercutting the meme that McCain is untouchable on foreign policy. Yes, it is more likely a case of a staffer writing notes for the candidate failing to do all due diligence in researching the day's talking points, instead cutting a corner too closely by taking cues from Wikipedia, than anything else. Still, a candidate must stand by the words out of his mouth even if not anything else. And if McCain is going to go around borrowing from Wikipedia, or even just paraphrasing the site, it makes less believable the argument that he's a real foreign policy heavyweight.

Update [2008-8-11 20:56:55 by Jonathan Singer]:At least one professor wouldn't be happy getting a paper with these types of similarities.

Update [2008-8-11 22:18:36 by Josh Orton]: But who says McCain doesn't understand the internet??

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Ad Watch: Obama Hits Back Hard on Celebrity Meme

Take a look:

I like it. It's light hearted -- the music is peppy, and it does not feel at all disjointed to see the transition from the hit to the "stand by your ad" requirement at the end with Obama smiling and laughing -- but it gets the message across that not only is McCain more of a celebrity candidate than Obama (see: Jake Tapper), but moreover the celebrity of his candidacy is much more insidious than that of Obama, with McCain's well-crafted image covering up his all-too-close relationships with Washington's special interests and powerful lobbyists.

In terms of language and imagery, the one main change that I would make is to have McCain not only flip-flopping from right to left, but instead from right to left and back to right -- because that's exactly been the trajectory of McCain's career, and the past few years in particular. It's not a major difference, but there's no need to reinforce the idea of McCain moving to the left, especially when it's the case that McCain has been moving, and continues to move to the right during the campaign.

But overall, this looks like an effective ad from the Obama campaign, one that I'm glad to see it running.

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