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Does negative go?

Among the ideas political types will ponder post-November 7 is this: To what extent is “going negative” advantegeous?

We have no definitive answer now, only a few clues, some notable case studies and – in one case – a serious and practical debate. The answer to that question stands to tell a lot about many of the most critical campaigns upcoming.

The debate can be found on the conservative Wahsington group blog Sound Politics , where participating Republicans are discussing what to do about the foundering Senate campaign of Republican Mike McGavick. In mid-summer he seemed to be catching up to incumbent Democrat Maria Cantwell, but since then he has stalled and possibly lost ground. (He now seems to be somewhere around eight to 10 points behind.) That may be connected in part to the ground Republicans nationally have been losing in the last couple of weeks. The posters on Sound Politics evidently accept that as the current situation. The question: What to do about it?

McGavick founded his campaign on the idea of restoring civility to politics, which makes difficult the suggestion blogger Eric Ealing suggests: Go negative. “This observer thinks McGavick can close the gap, but not all of it on his own. The missing ingredient is someone, or some group, to elevate Maria Cantwell’s negatives,” he writes – though of course he should realize that McGavick could not at this point be easily dissassociated from such a campaign.

The comments on this are fascinating. One notes, “I think McGavick has painted himself into a corner with his “civility” and “changing the tone” campaign theme. If he comes o ut swinging it starts to look like his previous campaign was just focus group tested poise. Changing looks desperate, and nothing turns off voters more than desperation (exhibit 1: Dukakis in tank.)”

Another: “I think that the Club for Growth will run some negative ads as well.Who knows the club for growth has a pretty impressive record when they get involved in campaigns.” (Club for Growth is a McGavick backer.) But he did not sound especially optimistic it would work.

What may underlie some of the skepticism about negative campaigns is the experience in the September primary, when a massive negative campaign against Chief Justice Gerry Alexander, responded to in far smaller degree, failed to unseat the justice. There was some strong feeling that the barrage didn’t wind up doing the job.

All of this has become of moment in Oregon, where an unusually heavy negative barrage is underway in several campaigns. In the governor’s race, Republican Ron Saxton has launched an astonishingly intensive (and expensive) fire of negative TV ads at Democratic Governor Ted Kulongoski, especially on illegal immigration. (It should be noted that there’s no apparent substantiation for the claims in those ads, meaning that voters should consider them as virtually made up – but it’s unclear how many voters will actually review them critically.) Returns on the last couple of polls do suggest they’ve had some effect, knocking down Kulongoski’s numbers.

The 5th District congressional race, in which Mike Erickson (with a self-funded campaign) has been doing much the same to Democratic incumbent Representative Darlene Hooley, has moved that race off the category of “fahgeddaboudit” over to a spot on the “better watch” radar. To a greater extent than Kulongoski has (so far), Hooley has responded in kind; she has a substantial campaign treasury to draw upon.

An unusual number of these negative attacks are either baseless or misleading, but that does nto always matter; most people don’t undertake to research the claims in TV advertising, assuming that if it’s in the mass media, it must be at least mostly true. (Hint: Not always.)

But to what extent was McGavick’s original impulse right? To what extent are people simply turned off by this stuff?

We’ll find out soon.

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