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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

‘Deis author presents book on campaigning

Published: November 3, 2006
Section: News

Political analyst and author David Mark 95 returned to campus last Wednesday to discuss his new book on the history, value, and general nature of negative campaigning. In speaking about his book, Going Dirty: The Art of Negative Campaigning, Mark sought to call into question the all but universal sentiment that there is no virtue in negative campaigning.

Pointing out that, weve seen them all before, Mark argues that negative campaigning has actually been dulled down substantially, considered in light of Americas political past. The visiting speaker was quick to conjure the racial and sexual slurs prevalent in American politics during the nineteenth century and as far back as the campaigns of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.

Mark acknowledges that some negative campaigning is outrageous, for instance the present-day tendency to spin a kernel of truthvastly out of proportion. But at the same time he believes negative advertising to be a crucial means of distinguishing between a candidate and their opponent.

Candidates cannot get away with making stuff up, Mark explains, what with the unparalleled capacity of the internet and other global communications media to fact-check and debunk anything instantly. So in large part, Mark argues, negative advertisements do serve the important purpose of communicating to voters significant differences between candidates. Accusations of dirty campaigning are often deflected by candidates who chalk up their alleged negativity to what would be legitimate comparative advertising.

Mark does give credence to this notion of comparative advertising as a key means of communicating what is dislikeable about an opponent. After all, a candidate is not very likely to publicize her own shortcomings, and isnt a campaign the setting for candidates to argue why they are better qualified for office than their opponents?
Some attempts to spin truth-kernels via an unsuspecting, internet-empowered, scandal-hungry contingent do indeed inflict political damage on opponents. However this sort of campaigning, via widespread word of mouth advertising, Mark suggests, is only successful against uncharismatic candidates or those who will not, or simply cannot successfully mount an aggressive (negative) campaign in response.

While intent on communicating that he believes both Republicans and Democrats are equally willing to go dirty, Mark did concede that Republicans often have better strategists, and that they are incredibly proficient at both mobilizing voters on their behalf and utilizing and adapting new technological advances almost as quickly and constantly as they arrive.

Mark warned also of two particular instances in which the Democrats need be wary of their tactics in going negative. The first he draws from one of the precipitating observations to his writing a book on negative campaigning. He noticed Howard Dean and Richard Gephardt finish last in the democratic primary in Iowa, following aggressive negative campaigns. Mark realized that going dirty is not successful in elections in which the voters have the opportunity to meet the candidates in person, often multiple times, as in such a politically significant election as the Iowa primary. This is because the voters get to meet the victims of attack and experience these candidates in the flesh. Thus, the generic negative ad campaigns are not going to influence voters as they would typically.

Shifting to congressional and gubernatorial races currently underway, Mark warned Democrats of beating the Foley scandal to death. This sort of campaign will, he suggests, become redundant, annoying, and ineffective. What he suggests instead is still a negative campaign, but one that does more to address real, significant issues. For example, ads might criticize fumbles in the War in Iraq and the Katrina mess and then follow up by pointing out how now they cannot even keep their own house in order. Mark also points out that funny and entertaining ads that play on some fault of an opponent are terrifically effective, and need not be so underhanded as some ads are.

As Kerry Howley, a writer for Reason Magazine, put it in an article published in May, 2006, Mark is convinced that negativity is a distinctly positive feature of U.S. elections. And he pronounces this while acknowledging that negative ads often turn people off from voting. He explains that negative ads are a big turnoff for voters because they are so different in form and function from other T.V. ads. And while he admits that negative ads of this sort often discourage, not encourage, people from voting, Mark iterates his thesis that the continued existence of negative advertisements is an integral part of the political process that elects Americans to public office.

But whether negative campaigning is good or bad, Mark made clear his opinion that they arent going anywhere. Speaking in light of the ever-present barrage of negative ads, what with the midterm elections not two weeks away, he warned his audience that these negative ad campaigns will not pass with the passing of election day. Expect us to be bombarded by negative ads, he predicted, cautioning of a permanent negative campaign, perhaps less intense, but still constantly extant, irrelevant of particular campaign cycles.

David Marks appearance on October 25th was the second installment of Brandeis Fall 06 Meet The Author Series. The next occurs November 14th, when Stephen McCauley will present his novel The Alternatives to Sex.