The ugly truths about campaign strategy

Dan Schnur, national communications director for John McCain's 2000 presidential bid and a veteran of four presidential and three California gubernatorial GOP campaigns, is the director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC.

POLITICAL consultant Mark Penn came in for a lot of outrage last week when a March 2007 strategy memo for Hillary Rodham Clinton’s campaign surfaced. In it, Penn suggested exploiting Barack Obama’s “multicultural, diverse” boyhood as a “very strong weakness.” According to Penn, Obama’s ties to “basic American values and culture are at best limited.”

“Astonishing,” wrote Joshua Green for Atlantic Online, which published the memo (and other internal campaign documents). But how astonishing? Inside a high-stakes campaign, what’s fair game and what works? We asked veteran strategists -- none of them working on the 2008 campaign -- from both sides of the partisan divide.


Dan Schnur


The temptation is obvious: Polling tells us that voters are more likely to remember a negative message than a positive one. And yet the danger is substantial: Those same voters tend to think less of candidates who deliver a negative message. So the question that every candidate faces is this one: Is the probable backlash worth the potential payoff?

It’s clear from Mark Penn’s memo that he understood the potential repercussions for his candidate of an all-out attack on his opponent’s values and upbringing, so he advocated an emphasis on Hillary Clinton’s “American-ness” instead. As much as the campaign didn’t consistently follow Penn’s advice to target Obama’s “weakness,” it did occasionally stress that she was born, in Penn’s words, in “the middle of America to the middle class in the middle of the last century.” Clinton was hardly the first presidential candidate in our history to try to “own ‘American,’ ” so the contrast -- without the attack -- might have been too subtle for many voters.

Most campaigns try to have it both ways -- deliver the negative message but protect the candidate from that fallout. (One common technique is for criticism to be offered by a surrogate.) But the best protection against voter backlash is to frame a negative message in the context of policy differences rather than focusing on personal characteristics.