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New Depths of Campaign Negativity in 2008? Not So Far

- October 2, 2008

According to some political observers, the current presidential campaign is threatening to descend to new depths of negativity. Political scientist Darrell West, for example, calls this campaign “the ugliest in recent memory.” Other analysts agree, partly because the pre-campaign mutual commitment of McCain and Obama to accentuate policy issues and eschew personal attacks broke down as soon as the campaign started. For a time, imputations of racism and sexism got more play than substantive discussions of the economy and national security. Another authority on negative campaigning, Kathleen Hall Jamieson of the University of Pennsylvania, is hardly alone in expressing her disappointment at this turn of events.

In our recently published book, Attack Politics, Emmett Buell and I analyzed the degree of negativity in every presidential contest from 1960 to 2004 between Labor Day and election day. In each of these races we closely examined every campaign statement by the presidential nominees, their running mates, their surrogates, and still others who spoke on their behalf or against their opponents — as reported in news items about each campaign published in the New York Times. Because we are applying the same scheme to the campaign rhetoric of 2008, we are able to compare its negativity to that of the twelve preceding campaigns. Our observation period is the same in every instance, the first four weeks of campaigning, beginning with Labor Day.

Our measure of negative campaigning is the attack propensity score, which simply states the percentage of all campaign statements that attacked the opponents. Here’s the year-by-year breakdown for each party:

Democrats Republicans
1960 65.6% 45.0%
1964 64.6% 66.3%
1968 57.1% 49.6%
1972 64.1% 49.7%
1976 47.2% 41.6%
1980 54.5% 58.6%
1984 66.0% 38.7%
1988 61.5% 57.5%
1992 59.6% 65.8%
1996 51.8% 48.4%
2000 36.7% 53.2%
2004 71.9% 52.9%
2008 45.6% 37.5%

So far this year, 46% of all of the Democrats’ campaign statements have targeted McCain and/or other Republicans for attack. Conversely, 38% of all Republican utterances have assailed the Democrats. Contrary to the emerging conventional wisdom, then, the Democrats have gone negative more than the Republicans. The finding makes sense in light of the extensive number of Republican campaign statements dedicated to projecting a positive image of McCain’s running mate.

Have today’s Democrats and Republicans waged unusually negative campaigns? When compared with the last twelve presidential races, the answer clearly is no. The Democrats have been less negative this time around during the first four weeks of the campaign than they were in all but one of the previous twelve campaigns (that of 2000). Likewise, the Republicans have been on the attack less in the first part of this year’s campaign than they were at the same stage in any one of the twelve preceding campaigns.

We have also uncovered evidence that this year, when the two sides have attacked, they have focused more than usual on the alleged personal shortcomings of the opposing candidates and less than usual on policy disagreements. History teaches, however, that some of the bitterest attacks arise over policy differences, as in the exchange between Democrats and Republicans in 1964.

Bottom line: Although the 2008 presidential campaign has already emerged as one of the oddest in modern times, its negativity is unusual only by virtue of being less, not more, in evidence.