Will the GOP's negativity produce a backlash?

Democrats like to tell themselves that Americans dislike the character attacks in which the GOP specializes. But that comforting thought is untrue.

Published September 5, 2008 2:55PM (EDT)

After a long week in Denver and another week in Minneapolis, I'm traveling home today and thus won't have much time to post, but I wanted to follow up on the discussion that ensued yesterday in response to my post arguing that, particularly in light of the brutal personal attacks on Obama at the Convention, Democrats ought to be far more aggressively critical of McCain and the GOP generally. Many people in comments and by e-mail argued that Americans dislike negativity and that Sarah Palin's speech, in particular, would backfire on the Republicans.

The first polling data is now available on this question and it's rather conclusive. First, from SurveyUSA, yesterday:

What grade do you give [Palin] on the speech? An A, B, C, D, or an F?

A - 60

B - 11

C - 11

D - 9

F - 8

On the whole, is Sarah Palin an asset to John McCain? A liability to McCain? Or, do you not know enough to say?

Asset - 55

Liability - 24

Don't know enough - 19

Does McCain's selection of Sarah Palin as a running mate reflect well on McCain? Reflect poorly on McCain? Or do you not know enough to say?

Reflects well on McCain - 55

Reflects poorly - 30

Don't know enough - 14

If you were placing a bet today, would you bet that Barack Obama will be elected president? Or, John McCain will be elected president?

Obama - 45

McCain - 48

Don't know - 7

Then there is this Rasmussen Reports poll from today, taken after Palin's speech:

A week ago, most Americans had never heard of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin. Now, following a Vice Presidential acceptance speech viewed live by more than 40 million people, Palin is viewed favorably by 58% of American voters. The latest Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that 37% hold an unfavorable view of the self-described hockey mom.

The figures include 40% with a Very Favorable opinion of Palin and 18% with a Very Unfavorable view (full demographic crosstabs are available for Premium Members). Before her acceptance speech, Palin was viewed favorably by 52%. A week ago, 67% had never heard of her. . . .

Perhaps most stunning is the fact that Palin’s favorable ratings are now a point higher than either man at the top of the Presidential tickets this year. As of Friday morning, Obama and McCain are each viewed favorably by 57% of voters. Biden is viewed favorably by 48%.

A CBS poll taken during the GOP Convention shows Obama and McCain tied (after showing Obama with a 6-point lead last week), while the Gallup daily tracking poll continues to show Obama with a 7-point lead.

None of this is to say that Palin can't be turned into a liability for the Republicans. She can be. And although I can only guess like everyone else, I've thought all year that Democrats would likely win the election and still think that.

But the idea that Americans instinctively recoil from negativity or that there will be some sort of backlash against Republicans generally and Palin specifically because of how "negative" their convention speeches were is pure fantasy. Cultural tribalism and personality attacks of those sort work, especially when they're not aggressively engaged.

Every four years, the GOP unleashes unrestrained personality attacks on Democrats and exploits cultural resentments. Every four years, Democrats tell themselves that such attacks don't work and are counter-productive. And every four years, that belief is disproven. These "character" issues end up mattering largely because Democrats, in election after election, allow wars over "character" to be waged in a largely one-sided fashion.

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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