Negative Tactics May Be Hurting McCain
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
This weekend, John McCain said he would, quote, "whip his you-know-what" speaking about tonight's debate and Barack Obama. McCain supporters have been urging him to take the gloves off and really go after Senator Obama. At the same time, negative campaigning on the Republican's part does not appear to be moving McCain up in the polls.
NPR's Mara Liasson is at the debate tonight at Hofstra University. I spoke with her earlier about the issue of negativity in the campaign's final weeks and the difficulty of going negative in the debate tomorrow night.
MARA LIASSON: I would say that the candidates think that they've probably taken off the gloves in previous debates. It isn't so easy to do when you're standing next to your opponent on the stage, especially in the last debate, when they were also in front of a group of ordinary voters who were asking the questions. I think that the debate is a format that constrains a certain kind of combat.
NORRIS: Well, Mara, I'd like to talk to you about the battle on the airwaves, and before we do, let's take a quick listen to some portions of the negative ads that each of the campaigns is running. First, let's listen to an ad from the Obama campaign.
Unidentified Man #1: Three quarters of a million jobs lost this year, our financial system in turmoil, and John McCain, erratic in crisis, out of touch on the economy...
NORRIS: That was an ad from the Barack Obama campaign. This is the end of an ad from the John McCain campaign talking about Obama's relationship with that former Weather Underground member, William Ayers.
Unidentified Man #2: When Obama just says, this is a guy who lives in my neighborhood, Americans say, where's the truth, Barack? Barack Obama, too risky for America.
NORRIS: Mara, from what you've just heard there, is there a more negative tone that we've been seeing in previous campaigns?
LIASSON: I don't think so. That too risky for America, I bet you and I have heard that every single election cycle...
NORRIS: Some version of it.
LIASSON: Some version of it. No, we haven't seen a Willie Horton ad. We haven't seen John McCain accused of fathering a illegitimate black child. I think this is rather tame if you look at the history of campaigns. I do think it is getting tougher. I think the difference is that you see Barack Obama basically saying that McCain is mentally unstable, that he's erratic, but he can use the economy, which is the number one issue for voters to make that attack. What McCain has been doing is using a kind of guilt by association charge, raising the question of whether Obama has been completely truthful about his relationship with William Ayers, which might or might not be relevant to a lot of people.
NORRIS: The conventional wisdom holds that negative campaigning usually works, but according to a New York Times-CBS poll out today, negativity seems to be backfiring for John McCain. Why isn't it working in this case?
LIASSON: Well, clearly, the perception is that McCain is running a more, quote, negative campaign, and there are studies that show a higher percentage of his ads are attack ads or negative ads. But, of course, the burden is always on the guy who's behind to raise doubts about his opponent and to go, quote, "negative." Obama, on the other hand, can just ride the wave of anger at Bush in the economy.
But I also think that what's happening is that McCain's favorability ratings are dropping. And for a very long time in this race, both candidates had extremely high and unusually high favorable ratings, way up in the 50s. Now, Obama's is at around 50, and McCain's is at 36. So I think that it has taken a toll on him, and the reason is that because the economy is such an overriding, overwhelming problem for people, is their number one issue, any attack of, whether it's on William Ayers or anything else that seems off of the economy, seems unimportant and irrelevant. And then, I think people can react against that.
NORRIS: Always good to talk to you, Mara.
LIASSON: Good to talk to you, Michele.
NORRIS: That's NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson.
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