Through Iowa and New Hampshire, the presidential candidates – for the most part – have shied away from negative campaign tactics. That could change soon. Ray Dearin, a professor of English and political science at Iowa State University, says states like South Carolina have historically been the site of some nasty attack ads.
Dearin says, "There are some states I think where (negative campaigning) is more of a tradition and where it’s accepted – or expected at least." The modern era of negative ads can be traced back to 1964 and the now infamous "Daisy Girl" commercial that helped Lyndon Johnson defeat Barry Goldwater.
"It was quickly withdrawn after being shown once," Dearin says, "because the public was so revolted by it. But, it achieved it’s effect because it was shown over and over on the news broadcasts." Negative campaigning has taken on new forms today. Dearin provides the example of the chain email suggesting Barack Obama is a Muslim who wants to destroy the United States.
"This was all easily discredited and has been," Dearin says, "but it’s just one of those things that flies under the surface and we have it in every campaign." When it comes to campaign ads, Dearin says the term "negative" is hard to define.
He says the ad may become "negative" when personality and character are questioned, rather than policy. Ultimately, Dearin says the public decides what constitutes a negative ad. The big question, however, is ‘do they work?’ "All the academic studies depend a lot upon the way you interpret them," Dearin explains, "but, evidently, negative campaigning does – to some extent – work under certain conditions. It works whenever the opponent being attacked is not very well known, and then there’s an opportunity to define that opponent before he or she has an opportunity to present their own case."
Dearin says negative campaign tactics are especially effective if the claims made against an opponent turn out to be true. He says George W. Bush’s bid for the White House suffered a setback in 2000, when he confirmed news reports of a 1976 drunk driving arrest in Maine.