Has Political Mud-Slinging Reached New Heights?

As South Carolina gears up for this weekend's primary, hopefuls are spending millions on ads slamming the president and each other. Host Michel Martin speaks to NPR's Ron Elving and Rosemarie Ostler, author of the book "Slinging Mud," about how ads today fit into America's colorful history of political attack campaigns.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News.

Coming up, we have more on that Mexican-American studies program that was recently banned from the Tucson, Arizona public school system. Yesterday, we heard from the state superintendent of instruction who is a key player in getting the program out of the Tucson schools. Today, we want to get another perspective. We'll hear from a supporter of the program. That's coming up.

But first, we want to go back to presidential politics. And if you live in the early primary states and even if you don't, you probably have already been hearing a lot of things like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Romney once bragged he's even more liberal than Ted Kennedy on social issues. Why would we ever vote for someone who's just like Obama when we could unite around Rick Santorum and beat Obama?

MARTIN: That ad is running in South Carolina where candidates are flooding the airwaves ahead of this weekend's primary. Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, of course, is not the only candidate being targeted. Other negative ads call Newt Gingrich's politics, quote, "desperate," and Rick Santorum a, quote, "counterfeit conservative."

We wanted to talk more about these ads. Voters say they can't stand them, so why do candidates keep using them? We've called on Ron Elving, NPR senior Washington editor to talk about that. But we're also interested in the history of negative campaigning in general. And for that we've called upon Rosemarie Ostler. She is author of the book "Slinging Mud: Rude Nicknames, Scurrilous Slogans, and Insulting Slang from Two Centuries of American Politics." She's also a freelance writer. Welcome to you both. Thank you for joining us.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Michel.

ROSEMARIE OSTLER: Thanks.

MARTIN: Now, Ron, a new survey from the Pew Research Center says that half of Americans already think that the campaign so far has been too negative. That number is nearly double what it was in February of 2008. So, I just want to get your take, Ron, you've covered so many of these. Is that really true? Is it really more negative this year than it was at this time last time?

ELVING: I'll accept the judgment of the voters. If people think it's more negative, I suppose it is more negative. I mean, you have to - you have to go with that perception because that is the only real measure we have of how much more negative it is. We can look subjectively at the ads and we can say, you know, this one's nastier.

But there has been already one concerted effort to bring down one candidate. That was to say the independent groups that went after Newt Gingrich in Iowa, they did it. He was the frontrunner. He was dropped way back into the pack by those negative ads. People don't like negative ads, but they work like (unintelligible).

MARTIN: That was going to be my question is that since voters say how they hate them so much, why do candidates keep using?

ELVING: They use them because they work. And we've seen it again and again. When an ad has a particular message to get across that message gets into the public's mind. Down in South Carolina, $8 million so far just on broadcast stations not counting cables, this is an enormous amount of money in a state of that size.

I mean, we're not talking California, New York, Miami here or Florida here. We're talking about a relatively small state with relatively inexpensive media markets. And to spend that kind of money in just a two or three-week period is absolute saturation coverage. You cannot avoid getting the message.

MARTIN: And I want to talk more about South Carolina in a minute, because that's a place where people has become kind of part of the folklore that campaigning is particularly, you know, nasty, negative, tough, whatever you want to call it down there. I want to check your perception on whether that's really true. But first, Rosemarie Ostler, you know, we always say just about every year, oh, it's so terrible. It's so much worse now than it was, you know, X years ago. Is that really true?

OSTLER: You know, I don't think so really. I think that we feel when things are happening, and especially now when we've got the Internet and everybody's blogging and television going all the time, and I think we're just - we feel like we're really bombarded with negative ads and we can't believe that it's always been like this.

But when I started looking at some of the ads that people were running really more in the form of, say, newspaper editorials or handing out pamphlets, they have always been pretty nasty and over the top. So, I think in terms of content, it's actually been surprisingly not that much different.

MARTIN: You know, you were telling us earlier that in a lot of ways it was actually worse in the 19th century because people were more upfront about attacking people personally - their looks, their background, saying they didn't speak good grammar.

OSTLER: Yeah.

MARTIN: I assume that there were, you know, racial references too. And, you know, at a time when, you know, certain races were not deemed to be worthy to participate in public life.

OSTLER: Right.

MARTIN: And there are references to perhaps that there was the change of (unintelligible) and that sort of background so true?

OSTLER: Yeah.

MARTIN: People were just more upfront about it? There was no code language needed.

OSTLER: Right, yeah. I think that is true. I think that the boundaries have changed a little bit. Abraham Lincoln was ridiculed for his looks and the fact that he was not well educated. And according to some people didn't speak good grammar or he was a just - he had been traveling around making speeches and people really thought his homey style was inappropriate for a president.

And I think - and this was stuff that was appearing in mainstream newspapers, on editorial pages. So, it was much more upfront and center, you know, that kind of thing that I think you could really get by with then, you know.

MARTIN: And wasn't it the case that people could pay people to put these kinds of columns in newspapers back then? Isn't that the case that there wasn't this sense of an ethical boundary? That people would just pay people to say certain things, isn't that right?

OSTLER: Yeah. Well, people wrote - one of the good methods was for people to write these unsigned editorials. And newspapers were partisan back then. They didn't really make some pretenses of reporting neutral news. They just were for the candidate they were for. And so, I guess to keep the editor from writing all of it, you know, other people would be in there writing things often under a pseudonym or with no signature.

MARTIN: But do the things that people talk about, was it true? I mean, was any of this stuff based on truth or was it just entirely made up? Was there any boundary about that?

OSTLER: I - well, you know, I think that there was some of both. There's always the issue of are you putting a negative spin on something that actually sort of happened or that's kind of a fact? Or are you just simply making things up? And there was, you know, some of both, I think.

MARTIN: And, Ron Elving, I think - is it fair to say that the kind of today's version of the unsigned editorial is the super PAC ad?

ELVING: Yes, no one really knows who the super PAC is. No one knows for sure where the money is coming from. The disclosure rules are quite different. And by law, the super PAC is independent from any of the candidates. So, even if we all know, and even Mitt Romney on the debate stage the other night referred to, quote, "my super PAC." Even with that, we do not absolutely know who the characters are, that's somewhat shadowy, who are putting all of these ads on. We just know whom they are against.

MARTIN: Well, here's an example of that. This is - and, well, it's very clear who this is against. Here it is, here's a super PAC ad.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE #1: Newt Gingrich's attacks are called foolish, out of balance, and disgusting. Newt attacks because he has more baggage than the airlines. Don't be fooled by Newt's desperate attacks.

MARTIN: This is from a super PAC called Restore Our Future.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ELVING: You get a lot of information about the super PAC from their names - not.

MARTIN: That's NPR senior Washington editor Ron Elving. Also with us, Rosemarie Ostler. She's author of the book, "Slinging Mud," which traces campaign attacks since the 1820s.

Rosemarie, you've made an interesting point. You said that you think blogging contributes - to blogging and the fact that people can comment contributes to our sense that campaigning is more negative now than it was back then. Why do you think that?

OSTLER: Well, I think there's just more of an inundation factor. And also, you know, in the old days, like say in the 19th century, there were people writing up really scurrilous, you know, ugly pamphlets and not signing them. But they were handing them around door to door. And that same kind of equivalent thing, I think, is people getting on blogs and posting any kind of comments they want, some of which, you know, really over the top. But it's a lot more accessible and it's happening every day.

MARTIN: Interesting. Ron, going back to the South Carolina question, it's become kind of part of the folklore of campaign coverage that South Carolina, you know, watch out. The gloves really come off. First of all, what contributes to that reputation and is it really deserved?

ELVING: To some degree, it's deserved. To some degree, there has been a history of that in South Carolina. One of the best practitioners or worst practitioners, if you will, of negative campaigning in our lifetimes was Lee Atwater, who came from South Carolina and worked for Ronald Reagan. He actually invented the South Carolina primary to help Ronald Reagan in 1980, and it worked. And it helped Ronald Reagan get the nomination that year. And South Carolina subsequently voted for the person who won the Republican nomination in every four-year contest. He also worked for George H.W. Bush and then died at rather an early age.

The Lee Atwater method was to - you know, you found something that was based in truth that's mostly - that's usually the most effective kind of ad, something that's got a little piece of truth and then you push it. You stretch it. You get it into a place where it connects to people's mythological fears and so on.

There is a tradition in most states, really, of some campaigns getting particularly nasty and, oftentimes, it takes place in the primaries where you would think that people would be more civil with the folks that are in their party. But oftentimes because there isn't that much difference between them on the issues, since they are of the same party, they get quite nasty on a personal level. And I think we're seeing some of that in this particular South Carolina go-round.

And we surely saw it in the infamous case of 2000 when the George W. Bush campaign disavowed any information about this nasty rumor that was going around about John McCain having an illegitimate black child. OK? That was a big thing that was going around and it wasn't necessarily being owned up to by anybody's campaign.

Well, of course, the basis in truth there was that he had an adopted child from Bangladesh, a very dark-skinned child, and it was clear in the family pictures that this child looked a little different from some of the other McCains.

MARTIN: And did it work?

ELVING: Yes. I don't think there's any question, but that that took root and was a problem for the McCain campaign and they had to address it.

MARTIN: And the relationship apparently was broken for many years as a result of that, as I recall.

ELVING: Between George W. Bush and - yes.

MARTIN: Personal tension between those two. So, Rosemarie, before we let you go, who has endured the worst attacks in history from your perspective, I mean, just really piled it on?

OSTLER: Well, you know, there are so many good candidates, but I always like to pick Al Smith in 1928 election when he ran against Herbert Hoover, because people attacked him from so many different directions. He was Irish-American. He was working class. He had a heavy New York accent. He was in favor of ending prohibition, which made people call him an alcoholic. But the main thing was the Catholicism, of course, and there was just a huge anti-Catholic orchestrated campaign against him that included, you know, the KKK and, you know, all of these other bad things.

MARTIN: Oh, dear. All right. Well, there's certainly a benchmark that we can measure against as we go forward. Rosemarie Ostler is author of the book, "Slinging Mud: Rude Nicknames, Scurrilous Slogans and Insulting Slang from Two Centuries of American Politics." She was with us from Eugene, Oregon. With us here in Washington, D.C., Ron Elving, NPR's senior Washington editor. Thank you both so much.

ELVING: Thank you.

OSTLER: Thanks.

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