Aim of negative campaigns: to show 'you are not of our tribe'
Some say the recent attacks on Obama have racial overtones, but others argue that it is simply hardcore campaigning, writes Denis Stauntonin Nashville
AS THE presidential campaign gets dirtier by the day, nobody knows better how it feels to face negative advertising than Harold Ford jnr, who narrowly lost an election to the US Senate for Tennessee in 2006.
A congressman for 10 years, Ford has long been one of the rising stars of the Democratic Party and, like Barack Obama, one of a new generation of African-American politicians with a broad appeal across racial groups. A few weeks before the Senate election, when Ford was ahead in the polls, the Republican Party ran a television advertisement featuring a young white woman saying she had met Ford "at the Playboy party" and urging, with a wink, "Harold, call me." The woman in the advertisement, who was an actor, acknowledged later that she did not know Ford but was simply playing a role.
The advertisement was widely denounced as racist. Ford's Republican opponent, who went on to win the election, asked his party to withdraw the commercial, which it refused to do. "I was subjected to a lot of this stuff. There's no doubt it went over the line and it was vicious," Ford says. "This stuff works."
Ford, now chairman of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, does not believe, however, that he lost the Senate race because he is black.
"I made a lot of mistakes and I could have fought a better campaign," he says. "American voters get this right. They pick the person they want. I was elected five times and I lost once."
Some of Obama's supporters have claimed that recent Republican attacks, including questions about the Democrat's relationship with former urban guerrilla William Ayers, have racial overtones. They argue that such attacks are part of a strategy to portray Obama as mysterious, dangerous and unfamiliar to white voters.
"When campaigns get close, people behave in certain ways. I don't think this is racial. It's just hardcore campaigning," he says.
"This would be happening if Barack Obama were white. I think his challenge is just to stay on path. He's resonating with voters. I'd remind you that it's hard for Democrats to win presidential elections. To be where he is, he's got to be pretty pleased."
Tennessee governor Phil Bredesen, who supports Obama, believes the Democrat has succeeded in keeping the issue of race at a very low level in the campaign.
Bredesen, who moved to Tennessee from New York, recalls that he was initially tagged as a carpetbagger who could not understand the culture of the south.
"I think it would be disingenuous to say that race is not a factor, but there are people who won't vote for me because I'm a Yankee," he says. "We are wired to be tribal. We either see people as one of us or one of the other. When you're campaigning negatively, you're saying: you are not of our tribe. It works."
Bredesen maintains that, despite all the handwringing about negative campaigning, politics in the US is less polarised than in Europe. He also believes voters behave rationally in studying the character of a candidate as closely as his policies.
"When you think back over the presidents we've had, the issues they've had to deal with have usually not been the ones that figured in their campaigns. Just think of Bush and what happened to his presidency after 9/11," he says. "For that reason, I think people are sensible to move from issues on to who these people are and how they make decisions. I think this notion of trying to create more channels of communication is appropriate."
The Obama campaign retaliated after the Ayers attacks with a campaign to highlight John McCain's past association with Charles Keating, a banker jailed for fraud in the early 1990s.
When Republicans remind voters of Obama's controversial former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, Democrats respond with incendiary quotations from pastors who once associated with McCain or Sarah Palin.
"You just get into this spiral," Bredesen says.
"I hope one of them will just pull back. The problem is that, when someone does that, they end up losing."