Politics

Unfair Campaigning? It Depends on Whom You Ask

Solid majorities of Americans believe McCain, Obama will not use personal attacks in campaign

HANOVER, NH -- Presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain have both claimed that they will not engage in below-the-belt attacks during this race. And while the candidates have made some pointed comments regarding their issue differences, they have largely refrained from intense personal attacks to this point. History has shown, however, that campaigns tend to get considerably more negative as Election Day approaches, so it is an open question as to whether the candidates will keep their promises for the duration of the campaign.

A recent USA Today/Gallup survey shows that most Americans are at least somewhat optimistic that one or both candidates will follow through on that promise. But a variety of data show that many people view the tone of a race from a partisan perspective. As a result, there is likely to be little agreement about what constitutes fair or unfair attacks on the campaign trail once the general-election advertising season begins in earnest.

In the June 15-19 USA Today/Gallup poll, Americans were asked about the likelihood that the presidential candidates would keep their promises to refrain from personal attacks. Specifically, respondents were asked "Both John McCain and Barack Obama have said they want to conduct a presidential campaign based only on the issues and not based on personal attacks. How likely do you think (John McCain/Barack Obama) is to conduct a campaign based only on the issues?"

Thirty-six percent of respondents agree that Obama is "very likely" to do so, compared with 27% who say the same about McCain. Combining the "somewhat likely" and "very likely" responses yields a solid 73% and 68%, respectively, who think it is likely that the candidates will refrain from personal attacks. In other words, more than two in three Americans think there is a reasonable chance that each candidate will run a campaign focused on the issues.

A look at the results for the two candidates in tandem shows that only a modest 13% of Americans think both Obama and McCain are "very likely" to stay focused on the issues. Just over half (53%) think both Obama and McCain are at least somewhat likely to do so. The composite numbers are lower than the numbers for each candidate alone largely because optimism about the ability of the candidates to stay positive is not uniformly distributed across the public. Partisanship plays a very strong role.

More than twice as many Republicans (40%) as Democrats (19%) think McCain is "very likely" to conduct a campaign based only on the issues (along with 24% of independents). And while half (50%) of Democrats think Obama is "very likely" to focus only on the issues, only 17% of Republicans agree, with independents falling in the middle at 38%.

The partisan tilt of these results is consistent with data from past elections. In a Sept. 24-26, 2004, poll, Gallup asked "In your view, which [2004 presidential election] campaign ads have been more unfair -- the campaign ads that have been attacking John Kerry, or the campaign ads that have been attacking George W. Bush?" Sixty percent of Democrats felt the ads attacking Kerry were more unfair, while only 13% of Democrats felt the ads attacking Bush were more unfair (the balance volunteered "Both equally," "Neither," or "Don't know"). Similarly, 55% of Republicans rallied to Bush's defense and said the ads attacking Bush were more unfair, while just 10% of Republicans said the ads attacking Kerry were more unfair.

For a different look at the question, I conducted an Internet experiment using a nationally representative sample of 425 American adults in November 2006. All respondents viewed the same 30-second attack advertisement against a fictional State Assembly candidate. The ad consisted of fairly standard negative advertising fare: ominous music and sound effects; a strong, deep voice-over; and black-and-white video footage. It included accusations of absenteeism while in office, investigations into tax evasion within a family business, and accusations of bad debts and campaign violations. Respondents were randomly assigned to one of two ads: one where the sponsoring candidate was a Republican and the target was a Democrat; and the other, the same ad with the partisanship of the candidates reversed. When asked whether the advertisement was "fair," people who shared the partisanship of the sponsoring candidate were far more likely to think the ad was fair (3.3 on a 7-point scale, where 1 was "Strongly disagree" and 7 was "Strongly agree") than were respondents who shared the partisanship of the target of the ad (with a lower fairness assessment of just 2.5). In other words, simply switching the partisanship of the candidates significantly changed perceptions of the fairness of two otherwise identical advertisements.

So will the public believe that the candidates are upholding their promises to refrain from personal attacks as the election season continues? The data suggest that the answer will depend, in part, on whom one asks.

Dr. Deborah Jordan Brooks is Assistant Professor of Government at Dartmouth College.

Survey Methods

Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,625 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted June 15-19, 2008. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points.

Interviews are conducted with respondents on land-line telephones (for respondents with a land-line telephone) and cellular phones (for respondents who are cell-phone only).

In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

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