December 10, 2012

Evan Vucci, AP

At this point, the conventional wisdom about President Obama’s reelection campaign has solidified: Obama ran a relentlessly negative campaign that said little about his agenda or presidency, and a whole lot about his opponent, Mitt Romney. Some critics have used this to tarnish the legitimacy of his victory.

At New York Magazine, Jason Zengerle cites this conventional wisdom when he writes that Team Obama is re-framing its victory by focusing on the tech aspects of its reelection effort, and downplaying the extent to which it ran a highly negative campaign. But the truth of the matter is that Obama’s effort was — in all likelihood — no more negative than previous campaigns.

In general, presidential elections are not positive — indeed, that’s to be expected, given the high stakes for both the parties and the country. Every election cycle, there’s a cottage industry of journalists and pundits bemoaning the negativity of that particular contest. In 1988, the New York Times wrote that George H.W. Bush’s campaign against Michael Dukakis ranked as “the nastiest Presidential race in memory.”

Four years later, the Los Angeles Times described the campaign against then-Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton as “the nastiest presidential campaign in recent history.”

Of Clinton’s 1996 reelection effort, Newsweek wrote that “It’s going to be the nastiest presidential campaign ever,” and of the 2000 campaign, the Baltimore Sun reported on Team Bush’s accusation that Gore was “running the most negative presidential campaign in history.”

In 2004, the Salt Lake Tribune noted a poll that where 51 percent of Americans described that year’s election as the most negative in their lifetimes, and in 2008, Politico wrote that the “Continued thrust and parry between Barack Obama and John McCain has led many to label the 2008 presidential campaign the most negative campaign in the modern era.”

Now, it’s possible all of these were correct, and presidential campaigns have gotten progressively more negative. My hunch, however, is that campaigns have always had a similar level of negativity, and it continually comes as a shock to reporters, who don’t think much about it in the time between elections.

The question isn’t whether Obama’s effort was a “grinding, joyless slog,” it’s whether it was more grinding and more joyless than previous presidential campaigns. When you consider Palin’s “palling around with terrorists” or the Willie Horton ads of 1988, I’m willing to bet that it wasn’t.