July 7, 2008

Using Fear to Scare Up the Vote

"The only thing we have to fear is fear itself," President Franklin D. Roosevelt told the country in his first inaugural address on March 4, 1933.

Roosevelt was speaking about the sacrifices Americans had to make to heal an ailing country at the height of the Great Depression. Unemployment was high, and national confidence was low. Houses and farms were being foreclosed. Personal savings were dwindling or depleted.

Seventy-five years later, the candidates running for president are facing similar challenges. But before one of them wins the presidency and begins solving some of these problems, they must first navigate a campaign of negative ads in which fear has become a common tool.

One of the most memorable ads during the 2008 Democratic primaries was Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s campaign commercial showing a phone ringing at 3 a.m. while children slept peacefully under the threat of danger. The message: Clinton was the more experienced candidate to handle a crisis 24/7. The ad — popular among talk shows and on YouTube — may have captured the public’s attention, but it failed to help Clinton capture her party’s nomination.

In 2004, a group called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth used a series of TV ads to question Democratic nominee Sen. John Kerry’s decorated military record. Though critics claimed the ads were riddled with falsehoods, the group succeeded in raising doubts about Kerry’s actions in Vietnam. Kerry lost the election to President George W. Bush. "Swift boat" has since become part of the public lexicon — as a noun and a verb — to describe negative campaigning and dishonesty.

Negative campaigning in the modern era can be traced to the 1964 presidential campaign, when Democrats sponsored a TV ad raising concerns about Republican nominee Sen. Barry Goldwater’s views on nuclear war. In the so-called "Daisy" ad, a little girl innocently plucks petals from a daisy, counting down each petal one-by-one. In the background, a male voice counts down to a nuclear explosion that ends with a mushroom cloud. The ad was broadcast only once, and Goldwater’s name was never mentioned, but the damage was done. President Lyndon B. Johnson was re-elected by a landslide. The creator of the ad, Tony Schwartz, recently died June 14 at age 84.

The fear of crime worked for Vice President George H.W. Bush in 1988. The ad, funded by supporters independent of Bush’s campaign, showed a menacing photo of a black convict named Willie Horton, who was convicted of raping a woman in Maryland during a weekend furlough from a prison in Massachusetts. Bush’s opponent, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, never recovered from the claim that he was soft on crime. Baltimore’s Sun confirmed the damage in its post-election coverage:

Republican George Bush’s no-holds-barred campaign attacks on Democrat Michael S. Dukakis apparently gave him the decisive edge, according to television network interviews with voters leaving polling places yesterday.

Sometimes the choice for vice president is enough fodder for fear-mongering.

In 1956, Democrats used Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s choice of Richard Nixon as his running mate to scare voters about the prospect of Nixon taking the top job if anything happened to Eisenhower. "Nervous about Nixon? President Nixon?" the ad asked. A similar tactic was used by opponents of Vice President George H.W. Bush in 1988 when he selected Sen. Dan Quayle as his running mate. Both Eisenhower and Bush won.

Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama have both expressed a willingness to run positive campaigns. But with negative ads — which have the power to boost or dash presidential hopes — so entrenched in the political process, what the candidates may have to fear is which ad ends up resonating with voters.

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