Protesting positive campaigns

JANUARY 15, 2010
Candidates should highlight their qualifications, not their glowing family lives
    With the release of Game Change, a new book by Mark Halperin and John Heilelmann that claims three of the 2008 election's top White House contenders concealed marital problems during the race, the trouble with modern political campaigns is back in focus. Namely, the misplaced belief that candidates' family lives determines their worthiness for office.
    After an avalanche of embarrassing sex scandals, voters and the media should long ago have realized that the happy family images presented by candidates are a well-constructed and carefully sold veneer, one that has little to nothing to do with the family's actual make-up. Barring a scandal, these images face no real risk of puncture. More importantly, whether a candidate has a good family life has no bearing on issues and his or her ability to govern.
    Unfortunately, similar stories, some without the gruesome aftermath of John Edwards' dysfunctional family battles, are the heart of the "positive" side of political campaigns. Candidates who run negative campaigns are blasted in the press for mudslinging, but much worse is the vast majority of candidates who accentuate the positive, running effectively issue-free soap opera stories designed to "fog the mind" and tell as little as possible about their views or abilities.
    Vanderbilt University Professor John Geer, in his book In Defense of Negativity: Attack Ads in Presidential Campaigns, shows that so-called negative ads present significantly more factual information than positive ones. These ads don't present uplifting speeches about shining cities on hills or mornings in America. Instead, negative ads focus hard-hitting questions on at least some of the policies that voters care about. Negative ads also provide a needed contrast, allowing the voting public a real chance to make a distinction between the candidates. Unquestionably, these ads pull information out of context and distort both the opponent's records and personal histories. But at least, for the most part, they are issue-based.
    By contrast, many positive ads and positive campaigns are useless. Not only do they have the same distortions as negative ads, they often focus on the wrong angles. So many positive ads are devoted to the story of the personal narrative and a candidate's wonderful family life, which is at best marginally useful in deciding if the candidate may have the judgment, skills and temperament to hold office.
    There is plenty of blame to go around on why positive campaigns are so focused on families and personal narratives rather than anything of value. But one stunning display in 2004 perfectly explains why campaigns go this route. It may be forgotten now, due to his ill-advised scream in Iowa, but Howard Dean ran one of the most successful issue-focused campaigns in recent memory, based primarily on the Iraq War. And yet, days before the vote, the subject turned from the perfectly legitimate questions of Dean's stance on the issues and his general fitness for office to a completely pointless discussion on his wife.
    Specifically, Dean's wife declined to spend months of her time in Iowa and New Hampshire campaigning. The reason seemed to be that she had a real full-time job as a doctor. In fact, by all appearances, she was the sanest spouse of any candidate for high office in modern memory. Yet she was vilified for it. Dean's obsession with presenting a fully issue-oriented campaign came to a crashing halt as his wife was finally dragged on TV to show the "happy family" pictures. Other candidates have learned this lesson, trotting out their families as often as possible to appease both the public and the media's desire for family narrative.
    Campaigns love presenting the glowing, carefully stage-managed images of a successful marriage instead of actually discussing issues and questions of competence. This empty-calorie diet of faux domestic bliss is easy on the electorate, and much more palatable than discussing hard issues and presenting a real contrast among candidates. But as our politicians' marital pratfalls show, these stories fall apart on inspection. Future candidates: Spare us the sunshine, and please don't focus on the family.
    Joshua Spivak, a public relations executive and attorney, is a research fellow at the Hugh L. Carey Center for Government Reform at Wagner College.