While many voters say they are turned off by negative campaign ads and mudslinging, candidates and their pollsters have found such tactics are often successful.
Republican presidential primaries in Iowa and New Hampshire have already produced vicious “attack” ads, many of which were directed at Newt Gingrich. The former speaker of the House called those ads “lies” and promised to stay above the fray by telling the truth about his opponents’ records.
It’s nearly impossible to escape negative campaigning. More than 5 million automated “robo-calls” have already been made to households in early primary states. And a record amount of money is expected to be spent this presidential election year on so-called “advocacy” ads aimed at distorting or misrepresenting a candidate’s voting record or positions on the issues.
The digital age has enabled mudslingers and dirty tricksters to spread their smear campaigns across the nation. The web is the new court square where political gossip is passed quickly from one computer to another. No email inbox is immune from campaign spam and deliberate falsehoods spread by political operatives looking to destroy the reputation of a candidate.
While it may provide little solace to those repulsed by dirty campaigns, mudslinging is nothing new in American politics. The maligning of an opponent goes back many centuries. And despite the vitriol heard in recent contests, the 1828 election for president is still considered one of the dirtiest campaigns in American history. Historians say most of the mudslinging was directed at Andrew Jackson, with opponents accusing the frontier populist of murder, gambling, slave trading and treason. They alleged his mother was a prostitute, said his father was a mulatto and called his wife a bigamist.
There was some validity — in the strictest legal sense — in regard to Jackson’s marriage to Rachel. He and Rachel were living as husband and wife for almost two years before they found out that her first husband had never actually completed the divorce process. A divorce was later obtained and the Jacksons renewed their vows. Even so, that didn’t stop Jackson’s political enemies from calling Rachel an adulteress.
Meanwhile, Jackson supporters were also slinging a little mud. They accused his opponent, incumbent John Quincy Adams, of installing gambling tables in the White House, inflating his living expenses and procuring women for the czar of Russia.
Jackson won the race for the White House, but was left grief-stricken when Rachel died just two weeks before he took office.
Old Hickory never forgave those who had attacked the reputation of his beloved Rachel. He took aim at some of those individuals during his first State of the Union address to Congress when he said it was time to end federal patronage and to abolish the Electoral College.
This was a mellow response from a man who, in his younger days, had been known to take aim with an actual pistol to settle personal and political grievances. Historians say Jackson fought at least 13 duels against men who dared to besmirch either his or Rachel’s honor. He is believed to have killed one opponent in 1806.
As personal as modern campaigns have become, they don’t usually turn physical. Yes, there are plenty of bruised egos and hurt feelings, but at least candidates are not facing off at 30 paces with a loaded weapon. Unfortunately, that is the only pretense of civility left in today’s political process.
Even so, the question remains: Do negative ads work?
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