Late in the 1960s the practice of political campaigning in the United States began to be transformed. New techniques meant that it was increasingly possible to disseminate messages to extraordinary numbers of potential voters, tailored to the interests and views of particular constituencies. At the same time attitudes were in flux, a consequence of the past decade’s social upheavals, and the old party machines were declining in influence. All these factors combined to accentuate the established tendency in political strategy to accentuate the negative.
When journalist James Perry wrote about The New Politics in 1968 his focus was on technique and not about how protests, demonstrations, civil disobedience, and community organizations might be shaking up the old elite. He explained how polling and marketing were becoming more sophisticated, and even drew attention to the potential uses of computers. Perry described how the moderate George Romney was taking advantage of these techniques in the race for the 1968 Republican presidential nomination. By the time the book was published, however, Romney’s campaign had collapsed, having failed to connect with voters. The new techniques could only take you so far.
The importance of a media image had been underlined in different ways in the previous two elections. John Kennedy had famously gained an advantage over Richard Nixon in the televised presidential debate in 1960, and then the possibilities of negative advertising had been underlined by one used by the Democrats against Barry Goldwater in 1964. This showed a small girl counting daisies as a missile countdown began leading toward a nuclear explosion, with President Johnson in the background urging peace. This became identified as a turning point in technique. It played on an established image of Goldwater’s recklessness. The appeal of the ad was emotional. It contained no facts and Goldwater’s name was not mentioned.
The limitations of technique when combined with an uncertain message were illustrated by Nixon’s 1968 Presidential campaign. Joe McGinnis’s "Selling of the President" captured the idea that someone so unprepossessing could be turned into a marketable political product. The aim was to attach a positive, moderate image to Nixon. But this cautious approach was not wholly successful. The margin of victory was surprisingly narrow.
To Kevin Phillips, a young lawyer with an interest in ethnography, who worked for Nixon in 1968, the candidate’s failure was in not recognizing the true opportunities created by the turmoil of the 1960s. His The Emerging Republican Majority was long and analytical but the underlying message was straightforward. The country had been dominated by a liberal establishment that was now old and out of touch, “a privileged elite, blind to the needs and interests of the large national majority.” Against the New Left’s idealism and the old progressive hope that ethnic differences could be transcended, Philips asserted that these identities were strong and enduring. While Jews and blacks might go with the Democrats, the minorities with a more Catholic background—Poles, Germans, Italians—were lining up against the liberals. Though immigrant communities once saw the Democrats as a defense against the Protestant Republican establishment in the North, now their children saw the Democrats as hostile. In 1970, two Democrat pollsters, Richard Scammon and Ben Wattenberg, also warned that the Republican majority was not yet in place but could be if the Democrats did not acknowledge anxiety among their natural constituents about crime and permissiveness. Instead, the Democrats moved to the left, with young activists pushing those issues that alarmed centrist voters, thus marginalizing the party’s former establishment.
Ronald Reagan saw how this new conservatism could be turned to his advantage. During the 1980 election he gained support among groups essential to this new Republican majority. This required an appeal to Southern voters, who had to be weaned away from Jimmy Carter—one of their own. While carefully avoiding overt racism, Reagan began his campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, a town notorious for the murder of three civil rights workers in the 1960s. Standing beside a known segregationist, Reagan stressed his belief in “states’ rights,” code for the obstruction of black advances. It also required a pitch to the religious right.
Reagan concluded his acceptance speech in 1980 with a moment that was apparently spontaneous although actually carefully prepared. He had been wondering, he said, whether to include some thoughts as an addition to the distributed version of his speech. “Can we doubt,” he then asked, “that only a divine Providence placed this land, this island of freedom, here as a refuge for all those people in the world who yearn to breathe freely.” Carefully he turned his presidential campaign into a religious crusade. He asked for a moment of silent prayer and concluded with what became his customary “God bless America.” As David Domke and Kevin Coe show in "The God Strategy," a new religious politics was born. This ploy elicited a positive reaction among two-thirds of Americans. Reagan knew before he stood up that if he could send the right message he would get the support of an increasingly powerful evangelical bloc.
The man who came to be credited as ensuring that the new conservative majority survived the 1980s was Lee Atwater. He made his name as a Republican political activist in the South during the 1970s and then was a leading figure in Reagan’s 1984 campaign before managing Vice President Bush’s successful campaign of 1988. He was struck down suddenly by a brain tumor in 1991, at the age of 40.
Atwater was an intriguing figure. He was charming and charismatic, but also devious and manipulative. With his existentialism and casual lifestyle he appeared to be at one with other student radicals of his generation. He also had a musical affinity with black culture. In his case, being rebellious and anti- establishment led to Republicanism. “The young Democrats were all the guys running around in three-piece suits, smoking cigars and cutting deals,” he later observed, “so I said ‘Hell, I’m a Republican.’” He added that this was also “a response to what was going on in the early ’70s. I resented the way the left wing claimed to have captured the hearts and minds of American youth. They certainly hadn’t captured mine.” Being a Republican in the South put him in the position of insurgent. Victory could not be based on the issues, so it had to be based on character. “You had to make the case that the other candidate was a bad guy.” His biographer, John Brady, describes how Atwater marketed himself as “a Machiavellian political warrior, skilful at using ad hominem strategies and tactics, characterized by personal attacks, dirty tricks, and accentuating the negative.”
Atwater’s timing was significant in another respect, as he entered politics when opportunities were opening up for professional strategists. The structure of American politics, with its numerous elections and constant campaigning, created opportunities for those who combined an understanding of the mechanics of getting out the vote with the possibilities of modern communications and a flair for campaigning. His reputation as one able to manipulate the “wedge” issues connected with race and crime was confirmed by the ruthlessness with which he disposed of the Democratic nominee in 1988, Michael Dukakis. He grasped how a carefully contrived stunt or a hard-hitting advertisement could become a talking point for days and reframe the voters’ views of a candidate.
Atwater was an intense student of strategy, a regular reader of Machiavelli who liked to have at hand Clausewitz’s "On War." Sun Tzu was his favorite. He claimed to have read it at least twenty times. Quotes from the "Art of War" were included in the program for his memorial service. “There’s a whole set of prescriptions for success,” he observed in 1988, “that includes such notions as concentration, tactical flexibility, the difference between strategy and tactics, and the idea of command focus.”
Craftiness could reap dividends, especially if the opponent was playing a less imaginative game. Atwater insisted on thorough research of the opponent (“know the enemy”), so that he could target weakness. Likewise, awareness of his own candidate’s vulnerabilities was important for defensive purposes. In helping Bush gain the Republican nomination, he exploited Senator Robert Dole’s known temper and managed to get under his skin (“anger his general and confuse him”), and then confounded Dukakis by attacking him in his home state Massachusetts on one of his preferred issues, the environment. Dukakis was forced to devote resources to an area in which he had felt safe (“move swiftly where he does not expect you”).
As the traditional ideological element, and party discipline, waned in American campaigns, more depended on the qualities of individual candidates. Strategy for elections was like that of battles in being geared to one-off, climactic duels. Elections were zero-sum games, so that what one gained the other must lose. This gave the contest its intensity. Given the size of the electorates, personal contact with the voters was impossible and so campaigns had to be conducted through the media. They were competitions of character as much as policy. Everything that happened must be explained in a way that served a larger narrative. Through the art of “spin” innocent candidates could be tarnished with an undeserved label while guilty parties could escape untainted, the fake and the true could be muddled, and the accidental could become deliberate as the planned became happenstance.
For Bush’s presidential campaign of 1988, the election had to be about Democrat Michael Dukakis rather than Bush, who was assumed to suffer from his privileged background and his association with some of the less savory moments of the Reagan presidency. Initially the polls went against Bush. Rescue came in the form of Willie Horton, a Massachusetts prison inmate, who committed armed robbery and rape after being let out on a weekend furlough program that Dukakis had supported as governor. While sparring for the Democratic nomination, Al Gore had mentioned that Dukakis had handed out “weekend passes for convicted criminals.” Nothing more came of this, but Atwater’s team took note, researched the issue, and saw how badly it could damage Dukakis. “Willie Horton has star quality,” exclaimed Atwater, “Willie’s going to be politically furloughed to terrorize again. It’s a wonderful mix of liberalism and a big black rapist.” Ronald Reagan had established a similar plan in California, and the one in Massachusetts was set up by Dukakis’s Republican predecessor. Although Dukakis did not want to abandon the policy, he had agreed to tighten it when it involved first-degree murderers. Yet this was turned into a story about Dukakis as a weak liberal making a habit of releasing rapists and murders to commit crimes. The main ad introducing Horton was not an official part of the Bush campaign, but Republicans followed it up remorselessly (Illinois Republicans: “All the murderers and rapists and drug pushers and child molesters in Massachusetts vote for Michael Dukakis.” Maryland Republicans had a flier showing Dukakis with a fearsome-looking Horton: “Is This Your Pro-Family Team for 1988?”). Horton was used to address issues of crime and race, the latter more subliminally. Dukakis’s image of being indifferent to crime was reinforced when he answered a question in a presidential debate about how he would respond to his wife being raped and murdered by restating his opposition to capital punishment. Although by the time the ad appeared, Bush was already ahead of Dukakis, the Democrat later said that the failure to respond was “the biggest mistake of my political career.” In some respect the impact of the negative campaigning was overstated because Dukakis had run such a lackluster campaign. The Clinton campaign in 1992 noted well the consequences of failing to respond to negative, personal attacks, as if it would be undignified to offer more than a disdainful silence.
Democrats had made their own contributions to political strategy. One, which pre-dated Atwater, was to recognize that elections were only one moment in a stream of activity. Intensive campaigning might culminate in an election, but that did not mean that the candidate could get on with the business of governing, the ostensible purpose of all this effort. Jimmy Carter’s campaign manager, Hamilton Jordan, advised him to start as early as possible to get name recognition and the funding to get involved in the first state primaries. The journalist Arthur Hadley identified the “Invisible Primary” as the period between the end of one election campaign and the formal start of the next. The natural next step was to the “permanent campaign,” a concept introduced by Pat Caddell (Carter’s pollster) in a memo written in December 1976. “Too many good people”, he wrote, “have been defeated because they tried to substitute substance for style; they forgot to give the public the kind of visible signals that it needs to understand what is happening.” According to Caddell, “governing with public approval requires a continuing political campaign.”
One imperative behind the permanent campaign was the intensity of the daily news cycle and evidence of the costs of failure to deal with negative material as soon as it first appeared. The sense that the daily narrative mattered at least as much as and possibly more than the business of policy formation and government pushed short-termism to its limits. In 1992, the lesson the Clinton campaign drew from the Willie Horton episode and the general ease with which Democratic nominees had been blown aside in the previous two elections was that there must be an immediate and aggressive riposte to any negative campaigning from the opposition. As soon as stories of Clinton’s infidelity surfaced during the primaries, the team was able to swing into action and deflect attention away from them.
Clinton’s campaign manager James Carville recalled that while he began by trying to “look at things in an analytical, calculating way and not let my own emotions get in there,” in practice “it never works. I end up hating the opposition, I hate the media, and I hate everybody who is not completely swept up in getting my candidate elected.” His preference was to be on the offensive. It was much more “psychically rewarding” to “slash the opposition than to cobble together another round of gushy, flag-waving, isn’t-our-guy-great ads.”
In a book written with Paul Bagala, another veteran of the 1992 campaign, Carville explained his philosophy by linking it to the demands of the media, which were only interested in scandals, gaffes, polls, and attacks. The only hope of controlling the agenda was going on the attack. Attacks could be prepared over time, waiting for the right moment to pounce, but timing was still essential, linked to both the progressive contraction of the news cycle, which created a media appetite for a new story even before the last one had fully worked its way through, and to the small chunks of time allowed by broadcasters for any story. In 1968, each candidate could be heard without interruption on network news for 42.3 seconds; by 2000, the length of a sound bite was 7.8 seconds.
This put a premium on accuracy, agility, and flexibility. There was no time for the “paralysis of analysis” and no “second chance to make a first impression.” The original media take was the one that would last, so it was important to be the first in the news cycle and not the follow-up. Once a judgment was made and acted upon, there could be no second thoughts; hesitation would be fatal. To frame the debate, the core message must be simple and repeated relentlessly. Communication required memorable stories: “Facts tell, but stories sell.” Carville’s team worked the media continually, making sure that the right messages were received after the debates and that nothing negative about the Bush campaign was missed. Having noted Dukakis’s fate, a rapid-response team was set up to respond to any challenge to the candidate. Even as Bush was delivering his acceptance speech in 1992, point-by-point rebuttals were being sent out. By the time of the candidates’ debates, knowledge of Bush’s stances and his record in office was leading to “prebuttals,” countering his claims before he actually made them.
The steady domination of negative campaigning at all levels of American politics reflected the conviction of candidates and campaign strategists that it worked, especially when races were tight and money was not a major constraint. Negativity would work less well, however, if the messages were too shrill, crude “mud-slinging”, or irrelevant to current concerns, such as a riotous youth or past infidelities. The experience of the past two decades, and especially President Obama’s two victories, demonstrates the techniques of the modern campaign strategist, from sophisticated polling to targeted adverts and careful narratives, can only make a decisive deference when attention is also paid to shifts in popular moods and attitudes. What worked for Atwater in the 1980s could not work for his successors because their messages appealed to a shrinking segment of the American population.
Adapted from "Strategy: A History" by Lawrence Freedman (New York: OUP, 2013). All rights reserved.