Who Will Go Positive?

Andrew E. Busch

October 1, 2004

With two weeks left until Election Day, the presidential race remains up for grabs. Neither candidate seems to be able to push much past the 50 percent mark, though the most recent Gallup poll showed Bush at 52 percent (to Kerry’s 44 percent). Each has succeeded in feeding the doubts that voters already possessed about the other. Some state-by-state surveys have even shown an increase rather than a narrowing of the number of electoral votes in play. It is not clear what, if anything, either candidate can do to break out decisively.

Media attention has recently been focused on the negative tenor of the race. Much of this discussion has predictably taken the form of berating Republicans or conservatives for attacking Kerry’s Vietnam record (including his activities after returning from Southeast Asia), his liberal 20-year Senate record, and recent comments he made indicating that he was not much changed by 9-11. Democrats and liberal groups have spent the better part of a year savaging Bush for "lying" about Iraq, being too stupid to be president, and representing the second coming of Herbert Hoover (when the unemployment rate is 5.4%!).

Leaving aside the relative merits of the charges flung around in the course of the campaign, it is clear that many voters have grown weary of the cycle of charges and countercharges. We may have reached the critical point in every campaign at which a campaign would benefit tremendously by pulling back from attack mode.

It used to be conventional wisdom among campaign experts that campaigns should start positive, building trust and good feeling, then go negative, and finish positive again. In the contemporary era of attack and rapid response, this advice has largely gone out the window. Campaigns today are much more likely to go negative from the outset and never let up until Election Day. However, one extremely close House race in Colorado in 2002 gives a clue that at least part of the formula still makes sense. Republican Bob Beauprez was locked in a tight contest with Democrat Mike Feeley in a newly created 7th Congressional district. Voters were deluged with attack ads, both in the Beauprez-Feeley race and the Allard-Strickland Senate race. At the very end, Beauprez went positive ditching the attack ads with the ominous music and the Darth Vader voiceover in favor of a direct personal appeal to the voters. Beauprez wound up winning by 121 votes, so virtually anything could have been considered decisive, but it is notable that campaign officials on both sides considered the last-minute shift key to Beauprez’s victory.

In theory, either side could take this tack now. Practically speaking, it would be much easier for Bush to pull off than Kerry. Most voters already give Bush considerably higher marks for leadership, trustworthiness, and likeability; they want to be given a reason to vote for him. Kerry, on the other hand, has not succeeded in developing any rationale for his candidacy other than that he is not Bush. His voters are driven by that negative rationale, and without the negative, it is not clear that he has anywhere to go. The structure of the race favors Bush taking this step, too. As the incumbent, he must give voters a reason to feel good about the prospect of four more years. As the challenger, Kerry’s chief strategic goal must be to convince voters to dump Bush. All of this is not to say that Kerry is incapable of going positive at the end, but Bush has more incentive to do so, and more resources with which to do so.

If Bush decides to go largely positive at the end, he should tell the story of his administration straight into the camera, and then explain clearly what he wants to do (including the "ownership society"). A heartfelt narrative would be better than a recitation of familiar campaign lines. It may even be time to revive the art of the election-eve 15 to 30 minute televised broadcast. All indications are that voters’ interest is high this year, as it was in 1992 when Ross Perot had surprising success with that format.

Andrew E. Busch is a Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College and an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center.