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Attack Politics (posted August 29, 2000)

Going on the attack is a time-honored means to contest election campaigns. Today, with the power of television, candidates deliver blistering attacks on one another. In the U.S. Senate race between Robert Weygand and Richard Licht, both candidates have lobbed thermonuclear blasts at one another. Licht has criticized Weygand's pro-life stance on abortion. Weygand claims Licht is an old-style politician who does favors for politically-connected friends. Now, Licht is running an ad accusing Weygand of being a special interest hypocrite for criticizing Licht while accepting tobacco money for his campaign.

What the candidates have to remember is that attacks can be effective at pinning unfavorable information on the opponent, but that voters dislike this style of discourse and penalize the one they view as the leading architect of negative campaigning. When going on the attack, it is important to shield oneself from the inevitable backlash from voters unhappy at hard-fought campaigns.

In 1996, President Bill Clinton earned many of the benefits of attack without incurring much of a backlash by pioneering what I call positive attack ads in which he combined 15 seconds of attacks on GOP foe Robert Dole with 15 seconds of positive appeals about himself. That strategy helped him cast Dole as a Gingrich clone not to be trusted while sheltering himself from the wrath of voters. Attack politics cannot be used as a sledge hammer but instead must be employed as a surgical tool.
Copyright 2000Karen Martin Media Services