Former Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee sternly warned the GOP that demonizing Barack Obama won’t work, and it would be a big blunder to even try. Huckabee issued the warning because he’s worried that by going negative against Obama the GOP risks voter backlash. Obama’s rival John McCain agrees. He has repeatedly pledged that his campaign will be clean.
McCain’s clean campaign vow and Huckabee’s warning against going negative won’t mean much to some GOP-connected 527 independent expenditure committees, which are ostensibly uncharitable hit squads. Under an IRS loophole, independent expenditure committees can get funds from any source with no limit, and they can spend the money in pretty much any way they want.
The instant it became clear that Obama was likely to get the Democratic nod, a few independent committees swung into action. They ran campaign ads in a couple of primary states knocking him for his ties to his controversial former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and questioned his patriotism.
When things really heat up in the fall, the committees will have a mini-Fort Knox stocked with privately funneled dollars to slam Obama on any issue — and with every big, petty and almost always personal attack — they choose. Other than publicly disavowing any of the digs that hit Obama below the belt, McCain can’t do anything about them.
The question is: Does demonizing a candidate really work?
The two best known examples are the Willie Horton hit against Democratic presidential contender Michael Dukakis in 1988 and the Swift Boat blindside of John Kerry during his 2004 White House run. One stoked fears about crime (Dukakis), while the other planted doubts about character (Kerry). Both worked.
Even without these extreme cases, there’s evidence that going negative can work. Though surveys show that the overwhelming majority of voters abhor personal smears against candidates them, far too many voters also can be influenced by the negative things they hear about a candidate. The trick to implanting those negative ideas is to directly link the ads to the candidate’s political positions, style or even personality.
In April, the GOP-connected Legacy Committee loudly announced that it planned to hammer Obama as being soft on crime in attack ads in several states. The committee tied this softer version of the Horton attack directly to Obama’s vote while a member of the Illinois state legislature against expanding the death penalty for gang-related murders.
In point of fact, the law was superfluous — there were already tough laws on the books proscribing the death penalty for these types of atrocious crimes — and Obama has publicly stated his support of the death penalty for certain “heinous” crimes, including gang-related murders. Yet Obama’s vote, and the fact that he’s a liberal Democrat, gave the hit committee just enough of a hook on which to hang their ad on and hope that the “soft on crime” tag would stick.
This fall, the committees almost certainly will dredge up some of the old stuff about Wright, Obama’s self-admitted youthful drug use, and financial dealings with convicted Chicago financier Antoin Rezko. They will once more mangle out-of-context or flat-out manufactured quips made by his wife Michelle about racial matters.
The more highbrow committees will work him over as being too liberal and too soft on national security concerns, adding more subtle digs at his patriotism. Then there’s the inexperience label that Obama’s been saddled with from the start of his campaign. That will be tossed out repeatedly in the hope that it will brand him as a greenhorn that will bumble and stumble on policy issues if entrusted with the highest office; in other words, a Democratic version of our current commander-in-chief.
The one issue on which the committees will likely tread gingerly is race. While carping on the race issue has in the past derailed some black candidates thought to be shoo-in winners of head-to-head contests with white opponents, it’s simply too sensitive and risky a ploy, and would likely backfire. Obama has not made an issue of race. Indeed, the appeal of his candidacy has been its all-inclusive message. The majority of voters would likely be outraged if race was made an issue.
Obama and McCain have talked on occasion about reining in the 527 committees. The motive for doing is partly to ensure that they control the themes and message of their campaigns, and partly to direct the flow of donor dollars straight from their supporters to their campaigns. But both also know how the rules of campaign spending work. One rule is that anyone can form an expenditure committee, raise funds, and spend the money pretty much the way they want.
Huckabee then can admonish the hit committees not to demonize Obama all he wants. Unfortunately, no one will be listening.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is a syndicated columnist, author and political analyst. His new book is “The Ethnic Presidency: How Race Decides the Race to the White House.”