Sunday, April 20, 2008

It's Official: Democratic Campaign Now Bad For The Party

Despite worries from Democratic operatives and predictions from the media that the long Democratic campaign was going to tear the party apart, I never really bought into that completely. John McCain has been unable to get any real media coverage while the Democrats fight it out, and by spending millions of dollars in Pennsylvania and other states, the Democrats have really been putting a down payment down on the general election. They've gotten people excited in states which they would have never even visited had the primary campaign ended months ago, and because Clinton and Obama are such different candidates, it would force McCain to run a vastly different campaign against the eventual Democratic nominee, both message wise and geographically. Against Clinton, he runs as the Maverick/change candidate focusing on picking off previous Democratic strongholds like Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Oregon, while fighting strong Hillary charges in Ohio and Florida; Against Obama he's the experienced steady hand trying to hold on to Republican strongholds like Colorado, Nevada, Virginia, and Iowa but with little fear of losing Florida, and a better chance to hold on to Ohio. So, keeping McCain off-balance, without knowing which persona to create, and which states to focus on, is not all bad.

Those were my thoughts. Until today. Part of the reason I didn't have a problem with the Democratic race continuing was because the tone, for the most part, was very civil between the candidates. Yes, there have been sharp differences between the candidates, and the daily campaign conference calls and press releases and memos have been sometimes scalding, on television, and in public, the candidates have not gone for the kill. Negative advertising, aside from some Clinton advertisements in Wisconsin accusing Obama of ducking debates, have almost entirely been focused on issues, and aside from some personal attacks in one debate (You were on Wal-Mart's Board! You represented a slumlord in Chicago!) the campaign has been mostly substantive. And especially compared to past contests, which have gotten extremly personal (like George W. Bush's despicable campaign against John McCain to win the Republican South Carolina Primary in 2000 or how the Republicans, to defeat Senator Max Cleeland in Georgia, called the Vietnam veteran and triple amputee as a result un-American) this has been very tame in comparison.

But now, as we head into the home stretch in Pennsylvania, negative ads are flying from both campaigns. Hillary Clinton may have started it (a 527 group supporting Clinton re-opened the health care debate and her own campaign released an ad attacking Obama for an ad in which he said he didn't take money from oil companies or lobbyists) but in being forced to respond, Obama's ads not only attack Clinton for going negative, but attack Clinton for taking money from lobbyists and for forcing people to buy health care even if they can't afford. it. This Hillary Clinton ad, in response to Obama's response to another extraordinarily negative ad, may be the most brutal and hard-hitting of the campaign.

Obama, no doubt, will respond with an ad of his own, like this spot:

This is not good for the Democratic Party. Voters are not going to respond well to these attack ads, and are going to be turned off from both Clinton and Obama. If this campaign has taught us anything, it's that when Clinton attacks, she may hurt Obama, but she hurts herself even more. And she's already fighting off polls which show as many as 60% of voters believe she is not trustworthy. That's an incredible negative. And Obama abandons the premise of his campaign every time he responds to a Clinton attack ad with one of his own.

So what can Obama do? He can't stay silent, and let Clinton's ads dominate the storyline and be the only thing voters see. For one, negative ads, for whatever reason, have a history of being successful. And for another, he has to show Super Delegates and voters that he will respond to these kinds of attacks coming from Republicans, and that he won't be swift-boated. So, I like running ads comparing Clinton to the "old politics" and saying that her negative attacks are desperate and show that she doesn't understand that her ads are exactly what voters want a change from. But, then going further, and attacking Clinton for taking lobbyist money, or forcing people to buy health care, while they may be legitimate points, drags Obama into a fight which even if he wins, will damage him.

That's why this campaign has officially reached its tipping point. The onslaught of negativity today, and negative ads which Pennsylvanians will see for the next 72-hours until the election concludes Sunday night, will harm both Senators Clinton and Obama. And for the Democrats, in a state they must hold on to in the fall campaign, this isn't good for either of them.

And if this is what the campaign will look like until the end of the primary season in early June, John McCain may as well start writing his inaugural address today.

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