Obama to Destroy Romney

This Politico story is making the rounds:

Barack Obama’s aides and advisers are preparing to center the president’s reelection campaign on a ferocious personal assault on Mitt Romney’s character and business background, a strategy grounded in the early-stage expectation that the former Massachusetts governor is the likely GOP nominee.

Let’s tackle three questions.

1) Why would Obama people like David Axelrod go on the record to telegraph their strategy?

It’s just a warning shot to Republicans.  The Obama team is signaling that if the GOP can manage to nominate a relative moderate like Romney, the Obama team are ready and willing to attack.  In their ideal world, this will increase the likelihood that the GOP won’t nominate Romney. In reality, it probably won’t make much difference.

2) Does this signal some sea change in Obama’s persona or style of campaigning?

You might think it does.  Ezra Klein couldn’t resist tweeting a link to the Politico story, channeling his inner Palin, and saying: “So I see the hopey-changey stuff isn’t really working out for them.”

Here’s a fun little quiz.  What percentage of Obama’s television advertising during the 2008 campaign included an attack on John McCain?  Well above 50%, according to research by the Wisconsin Advertising Project (pdf).  And what percentage of statements by Obama or Obama spokespeople that were reported in the New York Times contained attacks on McCain?  40%, according to the the book Attack Politics by Emmett Buell and my former colleague and Monkey Cage contributor Lee Sigelman.  (The comparable figure for McCain was 50%.)  Now, according to Buell and Sigelman’s data, Obama’s campaign was less negative than many other past presidential campaigns, but it was hardly just hopey-changey.

It’s conventional to assume that Obama’s message of unity and bipartisanship somehow means that he didn’t or won’t “go negative” in the heat of the campaign.  He did, and he will.

3) So, will it work?

Of course, it’s impossible to say at this point.  But two things are important to note.  First, although it is possible to demonstrate that the candidate who campaigns more than their opponent (e.g., runs more ads) can win additional votes, it is much more difficult to demonstrate that how a candidate campaigns matters (e.g., whether they are mostly positive or negative). Well-funded political candidates typically run lots of ads at the same time—some positive, some negative, some about one issue, some about another issue.  In that kind of environment, it is hard to show that one particular ad or kind of ad mattered more.  Beware of people who claim otherwise.

Second, when social scientists have tried to isolate the effects of negative ads—such as with experiments that, while abstracted from real-life campaigns, at least allow researchers control over the nature of ads that voters see—the overall picture is quite mixed.  In this review (pdf) of several dozen studies, Richard Lau, Lee Sigelman, and Ivy Brown Rovner write:

the research literature does not bear out the proposition that negative political campaigns “work” in shifting votes toward those who wage them.

Italics theirs.

As I’ve noted before, a bad economy will mean that Obama needs to contrast himself with his opponent.  So, from a purely strategic perspective, I agree that negative campaigning should be part of his arsenal.  But determining if the negative attacks themselves actually won him votes (and how many) will be challenging.

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

John Sides

John Sides is an associate professor of political science at George Washington University.