Article in MIRS October 24, 2012

October 28, 2012 at 11:50 PM

Just How Negative Is The 2012 Presidential Campaign?

Recent exchanges between President Barack OBAMA and Republican nominee Mitt ROMNEY have some major news outlets suggesting that between the debates and the SuperPAC campaign ads, negative campaigning and attack ads are hitting new extremes.

But Michigan State University history professor Malcolm Magee told MIRS this year’s campaign doesn’t hold a candle to the personal attacks — verbal and physical — that were used in the 1800 and 1860 presidential campaigns, among others.

MIRS recently spoke to Magee, a Ph.D. in international relations history and a specialist in U.S. history, about the 2012 campaign in comparison to past campaigns. The following is an excerpt of this exchange.

Q. How does this compare to other presidential campaigns?

A. Well, the current political race is quite negative. This may not be completely bad, however. Part of the reason these campaigns get so dirty is that Americans still pay attention to political campaigns.

Negative campaigns work because enough Americans actually pay attention to politics for them to work. Europeans are often surprised by how interested and involved Americans are in the political process.

While the candidates and their supporters seem to be aspiring to historic lows in negative campaigning this year, they have a long way to go to achieve the extremes of the past.

Many historians hold the election of 1800 up as one of the most negative in history. John Adams, who had been George Washington’s Vice President, had been elected in 1796. Due to a fluke in the way the Electoral College worked in the early days of the Republic his opponent in the election, Thomas Jefferson, became his vice president.

. . . As the first President to follow Washington, John Adams had faced incredible political pressure from both inside his administration and from foreign countries outside. From inside, he was undermined by Jefferson’s lukewarm to cold support and by Alexander Hamilton, the former Treasury Secretary and powerful Federalist, scheming against Jefferson . . . One summer day on Adams farm in Quincy, Mass., the two short men, Hamilton and Adams, came to what was certainly a shouting and pushing match, and may have been a fist fight . . .

Having separated himself from Hamilton, Adams now turned to the task of trying to defeat Jefferson in the 1800 Presidential election. This quickly turned ugly. Adams supporters warned, (this is barely paraphrased!), that Thomas Jefferson was the U.S. head of an international radical conspiracy, the Bavarian Illuminati, whose secret program had two planks: First, to outlaw Christianity, burn bibles and make every church or synagogue a Jeffersonian Party headquarters. And second, to nationalize women, balancing the budget by drafting woman into brothels and making men pay a tax every time they wanted to have sex.

Jefferson was more aggressive. While Adams had minimal personal involvement in the election, Jefferson was deeply involved. The Jeffersonian attack on Adams was that he was only waiting to be re-elected to use the army to make himself King, and throw everyone who objected in jail under the Sedition Act, that Adams was busy trying to import English prostitutes to satisfy himself in the White House and marry off his son to a daughter of King George III.

Adams referred to Jefferson as “a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father.” And Jefferson referred to Adams as having “a hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force nor firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman . . .

As to the rest of the cast of the 1800 election, Jefferson’s Vice President, Aaron Burr, (again due to the ambiguity of the electoral college) tried, and almost succeeded in stealing the election from Jefferson in the House of Representatives, thus souring his working relationship with the new President while bringing glee to Jefferson’s Federalist opponents. Following this, Burr and Hamilton engaged in a smear campaign against each other, Hamilton instigating an article by implying at dinner with a newspaper man that Burr had an inappropriate relationship with his 16-year-old daughter.

This was followed by the famous duel where the Vice President of the United States and the former Treasury Secretary famously went out to kill each other. Burr did kill Hamilton thus ending both their political careers.

I suspect we can all concede that this takes negativity beyond the simple banality of attack ads and robo calls, “Hello, we are calling on behalf of congressman Blather and hope you will tune in tonight to see him shoot his scum-sucking opponent during the debate.”

Q. Who else engaged in nasty campaigning in this country’s early years?

Andrew Jackson, while he didn’t actually shoot anyone while in office, managed to shoot in duels (or otherwise) some of his rivals both personal and political. He had purportedly fought 17 duels and had three bullets still in his body that the doctors had been afraid to try to remove. He once reportedly shot an opponent in the crotch and stayed for the sheer pleasure of listening to him scream. Again, this would certainly liven up the current political news cycle.

Then we have the elections and political climate leading up to the Civil War, which were far more negative than now. In 1856, Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner was beaten nearly to death on the Senate floor by South Carolina Senator Preston Brooks after Sumner made an anti-slavery speech in the Senate. Abraham Lincoln was characterized in the election as a baboon, a characterization that was continued even by members of his own administration.

Half the country went to war with the other half as a result of his election and his administration ended when a plot to kill all three of the top members ended with only his assassination. Political negativity today pales by comparison.

In 1884, we saw a particularly nasty campaign between Grover Cleveland and James G. Blaine. The Blaine campaign gleefully spread the word that Cleveland had fathered an illegitimate child. Blaine supporters showed up at Cleveland rallies and shouted “Ma, Ma, where’s my Pa?”

Cleveland supporters added a response “Gone to the White House, Ha, ha, ha!” This was followed by the Cleveland campaign jingle; “Blaine, Blaine, James G. Blaine, The Continental Liar from the State of Maine!”

Q. How about the 20th Century? Willie HORTON? Attacking John KERRY for his military service? Pope will run the country if JFK wins?

All of these are modern examples of negative campaigning. They follow in the best American tradition of demonizing your opponent. In the 1912 election, the supporters of Teddy Roosevelt came into possession of letters between Woodrow Wilson and Mary Peck, a woman Wilson may or may not have had an affair with. Roosevelt and his friends showed great restraint by not publishing them. In part because Teddy Roosevelt didn’t think anyone would believe that Wilson was some kind of Casanova. But by 1916 this had changed.

Wilson’s wife, Ellen, had died in August 1914 and he had remarried Edith Galt at the end of 1915. This scandalized some who felt he should have remained a grieving widower for a longer period of time. His political opponents loved to cast doubt on his character by circulating the story “What did Mrs. Galt say when the President asked her to marry him?” followed by “She was so surprised she fell out of bed.”

. . . With the crash of 1929, Herbert Hoover became deeply unpopular. Hoover, a man who had made helping the poor his life mission, was now presiding over the greatest and most widespread poverty in history of the nation. While both Franklin Roosevelt and Hoover showed remarkable restraint under the circumstances, some negativity was bound to emerge.

In what now seems like one of the great ironies of campaign rhetoric, Roosevelt attacked Hoover with, “I accuse the present Administration of being the greatest spending Administration in peacetime in all our history.” His running mate John Nance Garner actually accused Hoover of “leading the country down the path of socialism.” Hoover just couldn’t win, he didn’t.

In more recent times we have had Willie Horton, “Swift Boating” and of course references to Bill CLINTON’s women troubles. Grover Cleveland, Aaron Burr and Woodrow Wilson would have empathized.

Q. Weren’t the 2004 and 1988 presidential campaigns just as negative — if not more so?

Well, this one is not over yet. It may still surpass those. What it won’t do is end up with Senators and Cabinet members killing each other in duels, or the country taking up arms and slaughtering each other in mass. No one is arguing that women should be nationalized or churches be confiscated for use by the Democratic Party.

Nor will the Republicans be putting forth “Romney for King” or saying that your children will end up writhing on a pike if Obama is elected. The Joint Chiefs are not planning a military coup. Over all this is only a very negative campaign rather than a truly repugnant one.

Q. In your opinion, what was the most negative campaign?

In rhetoric, I would still have to argue that 1800 was the most negative. In consequences and actions, nothing can surpass the negativity of the 1860 campaign and the resulting Civil War.

Q. So just how divided is the country right now?

While the country is facing a pretty negative campaign it is not the most negative we have had in our history. The real problem is not the political words but the division in the country. It is a division that is being exasperated by certain kinds of 24-hour news companies who have found money by inflaming people with half truth and allowing them to live with no real engagement with alternate ideas.

A Democracy will never work if its people lose the sense of community that is developed with true dialogue between opposing ideas. That dialogue seems lost. The continuing erosion of the ability of ordinary Americans to find common ground for solutions reinforced by a radical kind of individualism, one-sided reporting, the current primary system that prevents moderate voices from getting nominated and unlimited money in the election process that skews the election to those favored by a few wealthy donors, these are the real problems in our current election process, not the rhetoric. The rhetoric is merely a symptom.



Some people think Malcolm may have done nearly everything in his life. It is not true, he is just interested in everything and knows how to tell a good story.

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Malcolm Magee

Some people think Malcolm may have done nearly everything in his life. It is not true, he is just interested in everything and knows how to tell a good story.