The Seemingly Constant Kerfuffles of Election 2012

What if most of the effort put into winning news cycles is pointless or even counterproductive?

In 2009, The Annual Review of Political Science published the article "Negative Campaigning." Its authors, Professors Richard R. Lau and Ivy Brown Rovner, surveyed scholarly work on negative advertisements in political campaigns. They found that attacking a political opponent is likely to result in voters evaluating him or her less favorably, but that the attacker is at risk of being thought of less favorably too. "If anything, this backlash effect appears to be a bit stronger and more consistent than lowering evaluations of the target of the attacks," the scholars wrote. "On balance, then, there is simply no support in the scientific literature for the hypothesis that negative campaigns are any more effective than any other type of campaign strategy."

The pervasiveness of attack ads are evidence enough that candidates and campaign strategists disagree. Perhaps they're right. Maybe they're wrong. The fact that neither judgment can be proven correct is worth keeping in mind while pondering the latest from David Brooks, who has lately wrestled with how to conceive of presidential campaigns. Are they like a courtship where candidates try to woo voters? Or like American Idol, where they're trying to wow the audience with their talents and likability? Or perhaps its like a plumber bidding for a job. "Voters aren't really looking to fall in love with the guy," Brooks writes. "They just want someone who will fix the pipes. The candidate's job is to list the three or four things he would do if elected."

For Brooks, a campaign is a bit like all of those things. 

So far, though, the 2012 presidential campaign is fitting into none of these categories. It's being organized according to a different metaphor. This year, both organizations seem to visualize the campaign as a boxing match or a gang fight. Whichever side can hit the other side harder will somehow get awarded the champion's belt.

...Both campaigns have developed contempt for their opponent, justifying their belief that everything, then, is permitted. In both campaigns, you can see the war-room mentality developing early. Attention spans shrink to a point. Gone is much awareness of the world outside the campaign. All focus is on the news blip of the moment -- answering volley for volley. If they bring a knife, you bring a gun. If they throw a bomb, you throw two. Both sides are extraordinarily willing to flout respectability to show that they are tough enough to bare the knuckles.

You needn't agree that both sides are doing this in equal measure to grant that attack politics is widespread. Campaigns engage in it. So do pundits. What interests me aren't the presence of official attack ads so much as the fact that Team Red and Team Blue are fighting for every news cycle. Were I an Obama strategist, I'd counsel the candidate to attack Mitt Romney for his many flip flops and his dearth of foreign policy experience at strategic moments during the campaign. And were I a Romney strategist, I'd urge him to attack Obama for the failing economy, wasted stimulus funds, and the gulf between his '08 rhetoric and the way that he's governed.

But does "winning" individual news cycles matter?

For the most part, I am dubious. There are certain moments in a campaign -- the hours surrounding a presidential debate, immediately following a major gaffe -- when spin could conceivably "change the narrative." But I'm increasingly convinced that most time spent trying to win news cycles is wasted. Well, that isn't quite right. For content providers like talk radio hosts, cable tv personalities, and Internet pundits, focusing on the battle of the moment keeps the core audience of political junkies coming back. But it seems plausible to me that fighting for news cycles is counterproductive for those trying to actually affect the outcome of a presidential race.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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