bq. Here’s the thing—the fundamental difference between most Republican attacks and most Democratic attacks, and why Republican attacks are more effective:
bq. When Republicans imagine attacks, they think in terms of character; when Democrats imagine attacks, they think in terms of policy and record. Read that again. It’s the key to presidential campaigns.
bq. …In general: Democrats try to turn the Republican into someone you disagree with on the issues. Republicans try to turn the Democrat into someone you wouldn’t want to live on your street or let near your children. Is it any wonder the latter is more effective?
That’s Michael Tomasky, writing in hs blog over at the Guardian website, here.
It’s a good story: simple, straightforward, even compelling.
Even better, it has an element of truth. But, to judge from the historical record, the story that Tomasky tells is greatly overstated and, if taken anywhere close to literally, it’s simply incorrect.
I base those assessments on data that Emmett Buell and I collected for our book Attack Politics: Negativity in Presidential Campaigns since 1960. For that study, we coded every presidential campaign-related story that appeared in the New York Times between Labor Day and Election Day, 1960-2004 — thousands and thousands of stories. Included in these stories were accounts of almost 10,000 attacks, i.e., statements by representatives of one party criticizing the opposing ticket. Here’s how these attacks have broken down during each campaign:
Year Pers Pol Pers Pol
1960 20% 72% 19% 76%
1964 21% 59% 39% 48%
1968 29% 61% 29% 61%
1972 35% 60% 38% 53%
1976 32% 62% 35% 59%
1980 17% 77% 23% 76%
1984 17% 76% 22% 65%
1988 42% 53% 22% 60%
1992 41% 51% 45% 49%
1996 30% 58% 41% 50%
2000 19% 75% 34% 62%
2004 16% 81% 24% 70%
What do these data tell us?
First, over the entire period somewhere in the vicinity of one out of every three attacks have been “personal,” and most of the rest have been on “policy” issues. (The percentages for these two categories don’t add to 100% because some attacks didn’t fit those categories.)
Second, for both parties — not just the Democrats — attacking on personal grounds has been the exception rather than the rule. So the sharp distinction that Tomasky draws between the two parties’ attack strategies is considerably overdrawn.
Third, there has been a difference between the two parties’ attack strategies. In general, the Republican attacks have been more person-centered than the Democrats’ have been, with the Democrats concentrating more than the Republicans on policy issues.
Fourth, in most years that difference has been relatively minor — a gap of just a few percentage ponts or less one way or the other.
Fifth, in the three most recent campaigns (presumably the ones that Tomasky had most clearly in mind, along with the current one), the gap has been unusually pronounced.
Sixth, but even in those three campaigns, the difference between the two parties has been one of limited degree rather than one indicative of fundamentally different attack strategies.
Overall, the Democrats haven’t thought just about policy and record when they’ve attacked the Republicans, and the Republicans haven’t thought just about character when they’ve attacked the Democrats. If one reads Tomasky minimally, as saying that in recent years the Democrats have been somewhat — though not fundamentally — less likely to concentrate on personal attacks, then the data bear him out. But if one reads him literally, as saying more than that, then his story loses much of its appeal.