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1:16 pm
Wed August 22, 2012

Political Junkie: Todd Akin And Negative Campaigning

Originally published on Wed August 22, 2012 1:29 pm

Transcript

NEAL CONAN, HOST:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. A congressman skinny dips in holy water and still can't buy a headline because another congressman redefines rape and biology, defies his own party and stands up Piers Morgan. It's Wednesday and time for a...

PIERS MORGAN: Gutless little twerp...

CONAN: Edition of the Political Junkie.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL JUNKIE INTRO)

PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: There you go again.

VICE PRESIDENT WALTER MONDALE: When I hear your new ideas, I'm reminded of that ad: Where's the beef?

SENATOR BARRY GOLDWATER: Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.

SENATOR LLOYD BENTSEN: Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy.

PRESIDENT RICHARD NIXON: You don't have Nixon to kick around anymore.

SARAH PALIN: Lipstick.

GOVERNOR RICK PERRY: Oops

PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: But I'm the decider.

(SOUNDBITE OF SCREAM)

CONAN: Ken Rudin is on vacation, so guest Political Junkie Charlie Mahtesian, national politics editor at Politico, joins us to recap the week in politics. Kansas lawmakers who violated the state's open meetings law will not be held responsible because the attorney general says they didn't know about the law that they wrote.

Hurricane Isaac may crash next week's GOP convention, but the biggest political storm revolves around Missouri Representative Todd Akin. The Republican Senate candidate apologized for offensive and untrue comments about legitimate rape and pregnancy but rejected calls from just about everybody in the party to withdraw.

Missouri conservatives, we want to hear from you. How has this changed the race? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Later in the program, the Pussy Riot trial and the problem of suppressing dissent once it goes mainstream.

But first, Charlie Mahtesian joins us here in Studio 3A, and thanks very much for pinch hitting today.

CHARLIE MAHTESIAN: Hi.

CONAN: And we begin with actual votes when we can, and a couple of congressional runoffs yesterday in Georgia.

MAHTESIAN: I think the important ones were in the Ninth District, which would be the north Georgia mountain district. And then there was one in the Augusta area, which picked the Republican nominee for what's expected to be one of the most competitive contests in the nation, involving John Barrow, who as you know is the last remaining white Democrat in the Deep South. And so that has some real resonance for the Democratic Party.

CONAN: The last one elected to Congress, in any case.

MAHTESIAN: Right.

CONAN: Just about the last one in other cases, too.

MAHTESIAN: Thank you.

CONAN: There was also a primary election yesterday in Wyoming. Any surprises in the Cowboy State?

MAHTESIAN: Not really. It's such a strongly Republican state. Democrats really don't have viable opposition there. It's been Republican for so long, and it was sort of a perfunctory election.

CONAN: And so Senator Barrasso and Congresswoman Lummis, re-nominated without any problems?

MAHTESIAN: Exactly, nothing there. Their percentages were in the range of what you might expect for an incumbent to win pretty easily.

CONAN: All right. Let's get on to the real news, then, and that is the Senate race in Missouri, where as you go back over the past - it's only been three days. It feels like forever, and most people probably did not know the name of the Republican senatorial candidate in Missouri four days ago.

MAHTESIAN: I think there are probably a lot of House Republicans who didn't know Todd Akin's name before a couple of days ago, and it's amazing. It's really remarkable how it's permeated the political sphere in just a short amount of time. It showed up in this - in one of the runoffs, yesterday, among the Republicans. One of them was pointing out that his opponent used the same media firm as Todd Akin.

CONAN: As the disgraced Todd Akin.

MAHTESIAN: Exactly, so, you know, it's in Republican runoffs. Democrats are already hammering candidates, not just at the Senate level, but also at the House level. House Republican candidates are being asked to answer for Akin's remarks. Obviously, it's playing out in the Senate arena, and it's also affected the presidential race.

So it's really had a wide scope in a very short amount of time, and that I think is what really distinguishes this scandal.

CONAN: In his initial comment response on Facebook, Congressman Akin said he misspoke and tried to let it go at that, but he was forced to then run an ad, yesterday, where he asked for forgiveness.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLTICAL ADVERTISEMENT)

REPRESENTATIVE TODD AKIN: Rape is an evil act. I used the wrong words in the wrong way, and for that I apologize.

CONAN: He made the rounds of most of the morning talk shows. Today, this is never going to go away for him, is it?

MAHTESIAN: No, and he's actually taken a different tack, because first was the mea culpa tour, which you saw. And then last night, if you were following his Twitter account, you would see that he suddenly went on the offensive and began sending out a series of tweets, about a half-dozen, blaming liberal elites and the liberal media and saying they're trying to get him to drop out, and don't - and asking supporters not to be intimidated by liberal elites.

So it's pretty clear what the strategy is going to be, to, sort of, double-down on the base and run a very defensive-minded election and hope to, sort of, stay in the hunt until about October or so, when the national party will have to decide whether to hold its nose and help him out or not.

CONAN: Liberal elites, he's talked about one of the people who's calling for him to pull out of the race, on the "Today" program, this morning.

(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION PROGRAM)

AKIN: Paul Ryan did give me a call, and he felt that I had to make a decision, but he advised me that it would be good for me to step down.

CONAN: Not just Paul Ryan, his friend and fellow member of Congress, with whom he has co-sponsored legislation, but all the living Republican senators from his own state.

MAHTESIAN: And it's not just the living Republican senators of his own state, it's the National Republican Senatorial Committee, it's many of the people he would serve with. And not just that, it's many of the most prominent conservative voices in the nation. We're talking about many of the most prominent conservative blogs, you're talking about talk show hosts ranging from Mark Levin to Sean Hannity. I think Sarah Palin's even come out.

And so you're talking about the full weight of the Republican Party, the full spectrum. Every quarter of the Republican Party, almost, has asked him to bite the bullet and step down, and he declined to.

CONAN: There seems to be just one person who has publicly called for him to stay in the race, and that's his Democratic opponent, the incumbent, Claire McCaskill.

SENATOR CLAIRE MCCASKILL: For the national party to try to come in here and dictate to the Republican primary voters that they're going to invalidate their decision, that would be pretty radical, and I think there could be a backlash.

CONAN: And this is the Democrat incumbent rated the most vulnerable as we went into this election cycle. She ran ads in the primaries hoping, clearly, that Akin would be her opponent, and it's, according to the polls, been a pretty close race.

MAHTESIAN: Right, and this is the greatest thing that ever could have happened to Claire McCaskill, because I think it's the widespread opinion among anyone who follows political races pretty closely, is that she was the single most endangered incumbent. And if you had to say who was not going to be returning in the 113th Congress, she would have been the senator you pointed to.

But all of a sudden, she's back in the game as a result of this. And that's a pretty remarkable turn of events in just a couple of days because her standing in the polls is just very, very low. Even now you see that Akin holds it close, according to some polls, and that reflects something about her unpopularity right now.

CONAN: In the meantime, this is going to not be contained just to the state of Missouri. For one thing, this affects the calculus. If McCaskill is now in better shape, and it's hard to believe she isn't, it's going to affect the calculus of whether the Republicans can take control of the United States Senate.

MAHTESIAN: Right the contagion is so widespread. It affects the calculus of majority control in the Senate, but it's not just that. It's also putting candidates in other races on the defensive. That takes them off their message, it takes them away from talking about the economy every time they have to answer for Todd Akin.

And keep in mind, this is probably not going to determine or decide any races, whether at the House or the presidential level, but this is a state that is - while it's fairly conservative, this was a state that was divided by less than 5,000 votes in the 2008 presidential election. And so you don't want to take any chances in an environment like that, especially with a seat that's just there for the taking for Republicans.

CONAN: Let's get some callers on from Missouri, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. Denise(ph) is with us from St. Louis.

DENISE: Hi.

CONAN: Hi.

DENISE: I am an anti-abortion Democrat. I'm very much against abortion, but I am also against the Republicans. And I don't think that Todd Akin would have apologized so much if he hadn't been called on the carpet, he would still be sticking to that same strange science that he has about women's bodies.

CONAN: And so you think that part he believes?

DENISE: I do think he believes it. I think that he's just saying that because he got called on the carpet about it. And I'd like to know what you guys thing about Ryan co-sponsoring the bill with this language in it about rape...

CONAN: It's not legitimate rape, which was what Akin said in the interview, but forcible rape. I'm not sure what the distinction is, but this also comes, I guess, the same day that the Republican Party Platform Committee down in Tampa endorses an abortion platform that, well, looks more like Mr. Akin's position than Mr. Romney's.

DENISE: I feel that the Republicans trot out their abortion platform every four years, get everybody excited, and then the next - if they do win, the next four years, they don't do anything about it. It's just an issue they bring up so they can get elected. Nobody's ever doing anything about abortion.

I think that Democrats care much more about the people who end up having to have the abortions because of the straits that they're in.

CONAN: Well, Charlie Mahtesian?

MAHTESIAN: Well, I think Denise makes some great points there. I mean, it's a problem on several different levels for Republican and a Republican like Paul Ryan. Because number one, it sort of enables the Democrats to continue prosecuting the case for the argument they're making, this is a prime part of Democratic messaging, that there's a, quote, "war on women" going on.

And this is part of that argument they'll make. And it also puts Ryan on the defensive on an issue that, while he is a strongly pro-life candidate, at the same time, that is the last thing he wants to be talking about, or Mitt Romney, in the homestretch of the campaign - that is sort of laser-focused on the economy. That's where they want to be.

Every moment they're - that's spent defending or explaining Todd Akin or talking about social issues, talking about abortion is a moment that they can't talk about the issue of Barack Obama's greatest vulnerability.

CONAN: And so they are off-message every minute they're talking about that or, for that matter, even talking about Medicare.

MAHTESIAN: Every minute, every news story that comes, every news segment on TV, all of that is a huge distraction. And I think that's reflected in sort of the widespread call from Republicans, all across the spectrum, for Todd Akin to step down yesterday.

CONAN: Let's get Paul(ph) on the line, Paul's with us from Washington, Missouri.

PAUL: Hey, Neal.

CONAN: Hi.

PAUL: We in Missouri have been - well, we'll just say blessed - to be aware of Mr. Akin for quite some time. And before all this happened, he was certainly under scrutiny by us voters when he called for the abolition of free and reduced lunches for our children. And then also he said people who belong to liberal or progressive churches are God-haters.

CONAN: So this has been a controversial figure in - it's also interesting, Charlie that in the runoff, in the three-way primary in Missouri, he was not the Tea Party candidate. He's - for example, one thing, endorsed a lot of pork.

MAHTESIAN: Yeah, he was not the candidate of the Tea Party, he was not the candidate of the establishment, and in many ways he was the candidate that the Claire McCaskill campaign wanted to run, because they figured in a general election, he would have the least appeal to a broad audience.

He didn't - he's not a great fundraiser. So all the things you look at in politics, he didn't have that make you a very viable or strong statewide candidate. But what he did have was a very devoted base of social conservatives, probably not as big as other social conservatives have in other states, but it was very devoted. And that's what you need particularly in a splintered primary, when you don't need a majority, you don't even really need a big plurality, you just need a few more votes other than the other folks.

And, you know, against Sarah Steelman who was running and against John Brunner who was the multi-millionaire who was running, it was enough to skate by, and that's how he ended up in this position.

CONAN: It's Political Junkie day. Up next, when campaigns go dirty. If you've ever worked on a campaign, when did you decide to go negative? How'd it work out for you? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the Political Junkie day on TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan. Ken Rudin's away. We won't start any more rumors about where he is, but we'll expect him back here in Studio 3A next week. In the meantime, sitting in, guest Political Junkie Charlie Mahtesian, national politics editor at Politico.

And in recent weeks, both sides in the presidential campaign have accused each other of playing dirty. On Monday, President Obama was pressed about an ad by an outside group called Priorities USA that tries hard to link the death of a woman with cancer to Mitt Romney.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: But keep in mind, this is an ad that I didn't approve, I did not produce, and as far as I can tell has barely run. I think it ran once. Now in contrast, you've got Governor Romney creating as a centerpiece of his campaign this notion that we're taking the work requirement out of welfare, which every single person here who's looked at it says is patently false.

CONAN: President Obama taking questions from reporters at the White House on Monday. The president's camp has complained of Romney tactics and tone as well in this campaign. If you've ever worked on a campaign, when did you decide to go negative, and how did that work out for you? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Joining us now is David Mark, editor-in-chief of Politix, an online and mobile political site and author of the book "Going Dirty: The Art of Negative Campaigning." He joins us from a studio on the campus at Stanford University. And David, thanks very much for being with us today.

DAVID MARK: My pleasure, good to be here.

CONAN: And when do candidates decide to go negative?

MARK: Campaigns don't generally like to discuss this publicly, out loud, but the general rule of thumb, to the degree there is one, is when a candidate, a campaign, realizes their own approval ratings are not getting any higher - in other words, they can't get people to like them any better, so all they can really do is sort of tear down the other side and get fewer people out to the polls to vote on election day, so that you're dealing with a smaller voter pool - in other words your own type of voters, who are likely to support you, rather than the general public.

CONAN: So it's called driving up the other guy's negatives?

(LAUGHTER)

MARK: That's right. It's essentially saying, you know what? I've reached my plateau. And I suspect the Obama campaign in Chicago is sort of taking this route, even if they're not going to say that publicly, that President Obama's approval ratings have probably plateaued in the low 50s, somewhere around there. And they're just not likely to get much higher.

So that all they can really do, whether directly or through surrogates, having them do the dirty work, as was just noted in that ad about that cancer death, is to drive up negatives about Mitt Romney and show why essentially he's unfit to be president.

CONAN: But doesn't this come with a cost? There was an interesting piece this week in the Washington Post that analyzed on a survey of independents, and one thing they really hate is all of the partisan bickering. They like it when people cross the aisle and embrace the other side.

MARK: And that gets to a really interesting and I think important point about this election. It's the question of how many independent voters are really out there. In the national vote, the popular vote, both sides, President Obama and Mitt Romney are likely to get 47 to 48 percent of the vote. That's probably true in a lot of the key swing states that are going to decide this election.

So what I think we're seeing on both sides, even if they don't like to state it publicly, is they're going for their political bases. With President Obama's surrogates there essentially accusing Mitt Romney of being complicit in a cancer death, they're essentially ginning up their own base. They're saying to their supporters, this is why we don't like Mitt Romney, this is why this election is so important.

On the other side, we have Mitt Romney's campaign directly accusing the Obama team, the Obama administration, of gutting welfare requirements. That's also kind of a signal to their own Republican base to say this is why this campaign is so key, why you have to not just vote but come out and volunteer, knock on doors, send email, phone bank, all the sorts of things you need to do to actually win elections.

CONAN: Charlie Mahtesian?

MAHTESIAN: David, can you put this in some kind of context, some historical context? Because, I mean, to me it seems like, you know, in the years that I've covered elections, it seems to me like a threshold has been passed, that it's suddenly no holds barred, everything's in play, no one's responsible for anything. There's no arbitrators. No one can set any rules. No one will listen. No one seems to care among the political operatives.

But is it any worse this year than in the past? I mean, is it to the level of, you know, historical elections where you had candidates saying any number of things around the turn of the century? I mean, how does this compare?

MARK: I think compared to historical precedent, certainly going back to the 19th century, even 100 years or so ago, it's not that bad. I'm not saying it's all love and roses out there, but both sides are actually being rather restrained in what they could go after.

I don't think we're hearing much mainstream talk about, say, Mitt Romney's Mormon faith. On the other side, we're not hearing many attacks about President Obama's one-time college transcripts, which are sort of on the fringes of normal political debate.

So what I do think is different, though, is the amplification of these negative messages, the fact that anything that gets put out there, when Joe Biden, Vice President Joe Biden makes a remark about voters in chains, quote-unquote, that gets put out there on Twitter, on Facebook. It gets chewed over, pored over on cable TV for hours and days on end.

And I think that's what's really different. But even looking back to Mitt Romney's previous campaigns - say, when he ran for Senate in 1994 in Massachusetts - the Mormon issue was raised explicitly by his opponent, Ted Kennedy, and his surrogates. So I think it actually could be a lot worse this time around.

CONAN: We want to hear from those of you in the audience who've been involved in political campaigns of one sort or another. If you decided to go negative, why? And how did it work out for you? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. And Evan's on the line with us from Tucson.

EVAN: Yes, hello. I'm currently managing a primary challenge in Tucson, Arizona, in the Second Congressional District against Ron Barber. And I just wanted to point out that sometimes there is a fine line between negative and pointing out flaws in your opponent's record.

Our opponent voted to exempt the border patrol from environmental regulations 100 miles north of the border, kind of went against his caucus, and with the Tea Party congressional candidate, Rob Bishop - I mean congressman. So we've been accused of going negative, but, you know, our contention is that these are serious issues the Democrats need to address and need to stand up for.

So you know, again, I think, I think - and there's been a pattern of voting along these lines. So again, I think we do need to contrast and open up a debate at times, and that includes your opponent's record.

CONAN: Your opponent's record ought to be fair game, David Mark.

MARK: Absolutely. That is part and parcel of negative campaigning, and I'm of the view there's nothing wrong about that. In fact, voters deserve that kind of comparative choice, and I think usually voters are smart enough to come to a rational decision. Not always. We could each quibble with individual electoral outcomes where that's not the case, but generally I think people see through many of these kind of outlandish attacks.

And the race the caller - the contest, the campaign that the caller raises is really interesting because that's probably going to be a rather low-turnout affair. This is an intra-party Democratic primary, and it's a case where a negative attack might go a lot further than, say, a statewide race or even a presidential contest.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Evan.

EVAN: Thank you.

CONAN: And I just wanted to mention there are examples of even when you're mentioning your opponent's records where it is determined afterwards that maybe you went a little over the top. This is a 1988 ad where a PAC that supported George H.W. Bush ran an ad attacking the then Democratic presidential candidate, Michael Dukakis, for his prison furlough program.

(SOUNDBITE OF AD)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Dukakis not only opposes the death penalty, he allowed first-degree murderers to have weekend passes from prison. One was Willie Horton, who murdered a boy in a robbery, stabbing him 19 times. Despite a life sentence, Horton received 10 weekend passes from prison. Horton fled, kidnapped a young couple, stabbing the man and repeatedly raping his girlfriend. Weekend prison passes. Dukakis on crime.

CONAN: David Mark, I don't think Mike Dukakis was going to win that race anyway, but nevertheless, that sure didn't help.

MARK: Yeah, listening to that almost a quarter-century later, it still sounds really raw, and it's just so hard-hitting. Now, factually, that probably was technically accurate. That was probably vetted by lawyers, campaign lawyers, and made clear that it could pass the factual test case.

But the context is what was really important there. As you note, though, Governor Dukakis did not really respond to that very aggressively. This has been well-documented. There were all kinds of cases at the federal level of the Reagan-Bush administration supporting federal furlough programs and the like, and there were probably a lot of good counter-arguments against that.

But I think that's a case of having to fight back and really defend yourself, not letting the opposition set the narrative of the campaign.

CONAN: Let's get another caller in. This is Jack, and Jack's on the line with us from Mitchell, South Dakota.

JACK: Good afternoon.

CONAN: Afternoon.

JACK: So this - I didn't go negative, but I'd like to talk about why we don't need to go negative. I ran for State Senate in South Dakota here about four years ago and was encouraged to do so by my friend George McGovern. And George didn't go negative in '72, and goodness knows if there was a politician who could have, you know, spread dirt around, it was George. And they couldn't find any on him.

But I was encouraged by people in the party to go negative against my opponent, who was running for the Senate for the first time but had a good record as a Republican representative. And they offered me quite a bit of money to go negative, and I just said, no, thank you. I don't want to do that, because he's a nice guy. I don't agree with his politics, but he's a good man and I don't want to tear him down. And I'm really sorry that our country has gone so negative, and we're missing the whole point of what being an American is all about.

CONAN: Did you win?

JACK: No.

(LAUGHTER)

JACK: No, I didn't win. But it wasn't because I didn't go negative. I don't think that would help any. I lost because he had a real head start on me, and he's a better politician than I am. I think I would have made a better legislator, but he was a better politician.

CONAN: Well, if everyone had your integrity and fair-mindedness, maybe things would be different here in Washington, D.C.

JACK: Well, I hope so, and I hope people across this country would - could remind all of our people who desire to be elected officials that that it's rising - we need to rise above this petty bickering and this mud-smearing. What we need to do is to get back to the real basics of the opposition. We need the loyal opposition. We need checks and balances for each other. I mean, I'm afraid I might go too liberal on something. I'm not very much afraid of that. But I need the opposition to call me back and say let's talk about this, not to call names and be negative.

CONAN: Jack, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

JACK: Thanks for letting me call.

CONAN: It's interesting. David Mark, you mentioned the factual part of the - going after your opponent's record. Then there's the un-factual part. This is the famous 2004 campaign ad. Again, this is by an outside group - a 527 group, as they were known back then - against John Kerry.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL ADVERTISEMENT)

ROY HOFFMAN: John Kerry has not been honest.

ADRIAN LONSDALE: And he lacks the capacity to lead.

LARRY THURLOW: When the chips were down, you could not count on John Kerry.

BOB ELDER: John Kerry is no war hero.

GRANT HIBBARD: He betrayed all his shipmates. He lied before the Senate.

SHELTON WHITE: John Kerry betrayed the men and women he served with in Vietnam.

JOE PONDER: He dishonored his country. He most certainly did.

BOB HILDRETH: I served with John Kerry. John Kerry cannot be trusted.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Swift Boat Veterans for Truth is responsible for the content of this advertisement.

CONAN: And being Swift-Boated, that's been added as a verb.

MARK: That's right, and it's a reminder that negative campaigning is a two-way street. It's not just those perpetrating the ad, those putting it out, that outside group there, which obviously had some real factual inaccuracies. I won't necessarily say errors, because the voters essentially litigated that. They decided on their own. But it was up to John Kerry's campaign and the Democrats defending him to say why that was wrong and to put it back on the opposition. So we could wring our hands all day about how awful some of these charges are, but if you don't defend yourself and push back, it doesn't really matter.

CONAN: We're talking with David Mark. He's the editor-in-chief of Politix, an online and mobile election 2012 site and author of the book "Going Dirty: The Art of Negative Campaigning." Political Junkie Ken Rudin's on vacation. Charlie Mahtesian is sitting in. He's the national politics editor. Are there other editors at Politico? There's no sports editor, is there?

CHARLES MAHTESIAN: No. We don't do sports yet.

CONAN: All right. Ken Rudin will be back next week. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

Skyler's on the line, Skyler calling us from Lakewood in Colorado.

SKYLER: Hi, Neal. How are you?

CONAN: I'm good. Thanks.

SKYLER: Listen, I've gone negative in two campaigns, and both times, I've regretted it. And because I think that what's critical is when you go negative, it's important to have a positive structure saying where you're different. I was deputy campaign manager on former U.S. Senator Mike Gravel's run for president in 2008 during the Democratic primary. And because we were such an underdog, our whole time was spent fighting tooth-and-nail attacking Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, John Edwards.

And there were a lot of reasons why Mike's candidacy didn't catch on, but I think that there was a lack of a positive vision. All we did was attack people on their war votes or on certain issues, and voters were turned off by that because they didn't see Mike as a leader. He's got, you know, kind of a niche in the campaign for being an attack dog. But outside of that, you know, he wasn't, of course, the nominee. And then at the local level, I managed to commission a race here at the county level. We were doing pretty well, especially for a Democratic countywide race here in Jefferson County, Colorado.

We went negative in October, (unintelligible) our opponents, the Republican opponents, and it backfired. Our base was turned off. The Democratic base was turned off by our attack pattern, and they voted for the Green. We lost that campaign to the Republican by 6,000 votes. The Green Party candidate got 20,000 votes. And I think that had we not gone negative, our base would have been more comfortable supporting someone in a down-ballot, down-ticket race.

CONAN: It's interesting, David Mark, the idea of having a positive structure to go negative from. And you're reminded of Barack Obama four years ago, the majority - just barely - but the majority of the ads that he ran were positive. His message was hope and change. There were, of course, a number of negative ads, too.

MARK: That's right. It's the conundrum that primary candidates often face. When there aren't real serious policy differences between the candidates in the primaries - I think we saw that in the Republican primary contest earlier this year. Sure, you could find one or two votes here or there where maybe the candidates differed, but substantially, they're on the same page.

So, in a sense, all they really could do is draw up these personal differences among each other: raise scandals, tax filings, campaign finance issues, affairs, that sort of thing, rumors, et cetera. And that's all you can really do to draw out differences. So I think that's why we often see primaries being so much more negative than general elections.

CONAN: And, Charlie Mahtesian, this year, it's gone so negative, so fast, it's a long way between now and Election Day.

MAHTESIAN: Right. And - but I think the one thing that's missing from the discussion is the acknowledgement that for all the hand-wringing, for all the navel-gazing about all of this, at the end of day, candidates are responding to political market forces. They go negative because it works. Yeah, sure, sometimes it doesn't work, but voters respond to that. And if voters were not responding, even though they say in polls that they hate negative ads, if they weren't responding to them, candidates would stop doing it.

CONAN: Stay with us, if you will. Charlie Mahtesian's filling in for Political Junkie Ken Rudin. Also with us is David Mark, editor-in-chief of Politix. We're going to take a couple of more calls when we come back from a short break. We'll also be talking about Putin protest and the all-female Russian band Pussy Riot. Anne Applebaum argues you can't suppress dissent once it goes mainstream. She'll be with us in our next segment, as well. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONAN: In just a few minutes, we'll be talking with Anne Applebaum about the Pussy Riot trial and what it says about the nature of authoritarian regimes in the digital age. But let's continue our conversation on going negative.

David Mark is the author of a book by that name. "Going Dirty" is actually the name of his book, "The Art of Negative Campaigning." He's the editor-in-chief of Politix. Also with us is Charlie Mahtesian. He's the politics editor at Politico. And we're talking about ads, primarily, primarily ads that go back in television time to one ad that ran just once and may be the most famous negative ad of all time.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL ADVERTISEMENT)

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: One, two, three, four, five, seven, nine.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one, zero.

PRESIDENT LYNDON B. JOHNSON: These are the stakes: to make a world in which all of God's children can live, or to go into the dark. We must either love each other, or we must die.

CONAN: Few would campaign on the basis of vote for my opponent and apocalypse, but Lyndon Baines Johnson won in a landslide that year. There were other reasons for his victory, as well. Let's see if we can get some more callers in on the conversation. Let's go to - this is Campbell, and Campbell's on the line with us from Arlington, Massachusetts.

CAMPBELL: Hi. Thank you for letting me on.

CONAN: Sure. Go ahead, please.

CAMPBELL: I was the assistant director of the public opinion polling operation on the Muskie presidential campaign. That campaign was slated to trounce Richard Nixon until we landed in New Hampshire, and William Loeb, the then-editor of the Manchester Daily Union, attacked Senator Muskie on his wife's alcohol problem. Excuse me. The senator was so angry and incensed by that negative attack that he cried.

And when he walked off the stage, he told me to go back to Washington and to close the office. The power of that negative example and his crying on national television meant to him that he could not win in an election, and Richard Nixon got elected. How might our world have been different had Mr. Muskie not been attacked in that unfair and unreasonable way?

CONAN: And, David Mark, wasn't it Muskie saying those were snowflakes melting on his cheeks?

CAMPBELL: Yes.

MARK: Right. It's really interesting to hear somebody who was involved in that campaign, literally on the ground, kind of give a different version of events, because that's always been among the disputes about that campaign, whether Senator Muskie really was shedding a tear or whether it was precipitation from the sky.

Whatever the reality, it really hurt the perception of his campaign. And that's a scenario where I would actually distinguish between negative campaigning and dirty tricks, where you're really presenting false information, not letting voters have the accurate facts to come up with their own determinations on who to vote for.

CONAN: But...

CAMPBELL: It was correct information. It's just, in the '70s, when you went into alcohol rehab, that was a big deal.

CONAN: The days before Betty Ford, yes.

CAMPBELL: Yes. It was well before Betty Ford. But it killed the campaign, and it was just kind of, I thought, the ultimate dirty trick, negative thing.

CONAN: Charlie Mahtesian, it's interesting. We've had sort of hands-off families. The Obama campaign and the Clintons before that have been very careful to keep their kids, in particular, off limits.

MAHTESIAN: That's true, although I think the rules change somewhat, depending on the campaign and depending on how the candidates use it. Number one, I think standards have lowered a little bit in that some members of the family are fair game. I think that's a change, an evolution over the years.

But the other part, too, is I think if you talk to many campaigns, they will sometimes suggest that as soon as the family becomes an integral part of the campaign in a way that goes beyond the typical family values, photo or shots, then they become fair game. When one becomes a surrogate, for example, when one of the family becomes an aggressive surrogate, then the rules change.

CONAN: Here's an email from Max: Negativity is often honesty. I've been involved in political campaigns for the past eight years. Political candidates are very competitive people who often genuinely dislike their opponents. And there are a lot of politicians who are actually rather terrible people. If I see a candidate who evades criticizing his or her opponent, I take that as an indicator they're not honestly expressing their opinion. After all, if their opponent wasn't so bad, why would they be running against them? And, David Mark, it makes you think of Tim Pawlenty skipping the opportunity to go after Romneycare in that debate that, I guess, spelled the end of his campaign.

MARK: Right. That was an example of kind of being Mister Nice Guy and not really being as aggressive as Governor Pawlenty potentially could have in that campaign. Whether that moment alone killed off his candidacy, we could debate all day long. But clearly, he could have been much more aggressive there. And it is also worth nothing that candidates are essentially job applicants. And like most people applying for jobs, you tend to emphasis certain parts of your background and resume and sort of gloss over or even ignore other parts that you don't want people to know about.

So I do agree with the caller. It's essentially up to the opposition to fill in those gaps and paint a more - a fuller picture.

CONAN: Charlie?

MAHTESIAN: Well, I think while there's a human element involved, and that's very important as it was in the Pawlenty case, the local political culture matters too. For example, the caller from South Dakota is from a political culture that's much cleaner in the upper Midwest than it is in other parts of the country. You read what's happening in South Florida these days in the local campaigns with mailers and radio. It is just dirty, lowdown business and so much matters in where the campaign is being prosecuted.

CONAN: Charlie Mahtesian, thanks very much for being with us today, pinch-hitting as our Political Junkie. Ken Rudin will be back next week. Thanks.

MAHTESIAN: Thank you.

CONAN: And, David Mark, appreciate your time.

MARK: My pleasure. Thank you.

CONAN: David Mark is editor-in-chief of Politix. He joined us from a studio in Stanford University.

When we come back in just a second, we'll be talking about political culture in Moscow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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