Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Slinging Mud

Every election cycle, voters, pundits, and candidates decry the practice of mudslinging – negative campaigning that seeks to promote one candidate only by tearing down the other. The term originates from the Latin phrase Fortiter caluniare, aliquid adhaerebit, which translates to “throw plenty of dirt and some of it will stick.” Sometime after the American Civil War, dirt was transformed into mud and the phrase became widely used in newspapers reporting on political campaign activities by the 1870s.

Right: Two avid supporters of political opponents battle it out! Richard B. Russell, Jr. Collection, Russell Library.

The United States has a long and rich history of mudslinging, dating at least as far back as the presidential election of 1796, in which John Adams and Thomas Jefferson each fought to succeed the venerable George Washington into the nation’s highest office. The practice continued and intensified during the 19th century, with smear campaigns aimed at candidates’ alleged political dealings (as against John Quincy Adams in 1828), views (Abraham Lincoln in 1860), or personal lives (Grover Cleveland in 1884).

Later presidential campaigns used television as a primary attack mechanism. Lyndon Johnson’s famous “Daisy” ad, though aired only once, generated widespread condemnation for insinuating that a Barry Goldwater Presidency could mean nuclear war. Johnson actually ran other ads making the Goldwater/atomic bomb link more explicit, though pundits have mostly forgotten these. A political action committee (PAC) affiliated with George H. W. Bush’s campaign in 1988 funded a now-classic “soft-on-crime” attack ad against Michael Dukakis. The most recent negative presidential ad to make the history books is probably that aired by the anti-John Kerry 527 group known as Swift Boat Veterans for Truth in 2004.

Mudslinging is not, of course, exclusively a function of campaigns for the White House. Here in Georgia, the U.S. Senate race of 2002 has already gone down in history as one of the nastiest races in modern memory. First-term Democratic Sen. Max Cleland faced an unexpectedly strong challenge from Rep. Saxby Chambliss of Moultrie.

A Vietnam veteran and triple amputee, Cleland had lost both legs and an arm near Khe Sanh in 1968. So it was especially controversial when Chambliss’s campaign aired this ad, easily the most talked-about in the nation that cycle, accusing Cleland of lacking “the courage to lead” on President George W. Bush’s homeland security efforts and juxtaposing images of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein with Cleland’s face. The final weeks showed the race closing with Cleland leading by six points in an October 16-17 Mason-Dixon poll, by three points in a poll sponsored by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution during October 25-29, and by two points in Zogby’s final poll, conducted November 3-4.

On Election Day, November 5, Chambliss won by a convincing 6.87% spread, a victory matched by unprecedented GOP success in state offices the same night, including the governorship (Sonny Perdue defeated incumbent Roy Barnes, becoming the first Republican to be elected to the office in Georgia since 1868). While many Democrats attributed the win to Chambliss’s mudslinging, 2002 proved to be the Georgia Republican Party’s long-awaited breakthrough after some 130 years of unbroken Democratic dominance in state politics.

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