Mar 11, 2008

Smear Campaigns

by Adam Privett & Will Mayer

Since the days of Thomas Jefferson, smear tactics have been used.  Some say that smear campaigns are as American as apple pie.   The difference is the taste left in the mouths of Americans.
 “The proliferation of negative advertising has made Americans more cynical about politics,” said Andy Segal in an article on
The primary purpose of any smear campaign is to discredit a candidate.
“The idea is to find some piece of personal information that is tawdry enough to raise doubts, repelling a candidate’s natural supporters,” Richard H. Davis said in an article in the Boston Globe.
Davis continued to describe how campaigns conduct “oppo research,” which involves extensive background checks in the public and personal lives of political opponents.  From the information found, the person or group composing the smear can either present it as is, or they can present the information in a different light (some would refer to this as distorting the truth).
Smear campaigns are used by both Republicans and Democrats.  The 2000 Republican presidential primary was a prime example of politicians using dirty tactis.
 “With few substantive differences between Bush and McCain, the campaign was bound to turn personal.  The situation was ripe for a smear,” said Davis. 
Anonymous opponents used “push polling” to convey that McCain’s adopted Bangladesh-born daughter was actually his illegitimate black child.
In push polling, a voter is called from a polling company and asked which candidate will get the voter’s support.  The pollster then uses their discretion to determine who the voter supports and then presents negative information about that candidate in order to instill doubt and indecision in the voter — and maybe even change the vote.   
This year, according to a Jan. 17 New York Times  article by Elizabeth Bumiller, automated calls harassing voters have been a tactic used by a group called Common Sense Issues, which supports Gov. Mike Huckabee. Huckabee’s campaign vehemently denied that they had a connection to the group and has told the group to stop making the harassing phone calls.
As a defense, McCain established a South Carolina Truth Squad, which is responsible for handling smear attacks before they become damaging. 
The Democratic Party is not innocent of dirty politics, either.
 The Obama campaign was condemned for strong-arming voters in phone calls in a December 2007 article on the political commentary Web site
The Clinton campaign recently released a photograph of Sen. Barack Obama in Muslim garb with blatantly obvious motives. Surrogates of the Clintons are also said to have dug up a kindergarten essay written by Obama in attempts to discredit him.
Politics is a dirty game.  For anyone in the political arena, playing a little hardball is OK, but it is up to the voters to decide when the candidates have gone too far — and to let them know at the polls.

Contact Adam Privett at

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