Reining In Attack Politics

By Rob Richie and Steven Hill

It all started so differently. A year ago, negative attacks seemed far from the minds of Democratic presidential candidates Bill Bradley and Al Gore and Republicans George Bush and John McCain. As recently as January, Bush and McCain pledged not to run negative ads against one another in Republican primaries.

Times change -- and fast. Attacks are escalating on a daily basis in both races, with much finger-pointing about who is to blame. What went wrong?

The answer lies in the winner-take-all dynamic that has been unleashed by modern campaign methods, particularly when the field is reduced to two. The nearly inevitable bitterness associated with two-choice races -- as demonstrated in the presidential primaries and countless other contests in recent years -- presents important challenges to our traditional two-party system.

The Democrats had a two-candidate presidential contest from the start, and, unsurprisingly, were the first to go negative. When Bradley began surging past him in the polls, Gore launched a full-frontal attack, questioning Bradley's commitment to the Democratic party and picking apart his health care plan.

Bradley at first refused to fight back. But after being swamped in the Iowa caucuses, he went after Gore. Their latest debate was described in the Washington Post as "relentlessly negative."

On the Republican side, frontrunner Bush and his sundry opponents for months pursued a generally positive campaign, with Bush even defending McCain as "a good man." But Bush's waltz to the nomination effectively turned into a two-person battle after McCain's landslide win in New Hampshire and the withdrawal of weaker candidates.

The first casualty was comity. In South Carolina, Bush charged McCain with cozying up to special interests and betraying conservative values. McCain responded with ads attacking Bush's integrity, but then unilaterally pulled them. Bush continued to blanket the state with attacks and won the support of most voters making up their minds in the days before the vote. His success made the escalation of attacks by both campaigns in Michigan nearly inescapable.

Will the real Bill Bradley, George Bush, Al Gore and John McCain please stand up? Are you truly duplicitous, Jekyll-and-Hyde characters? Or is something else at work?

There are two complementary answers. First, the candidates are tantalizingly close to the greatest elected office in the world. Like the teams in the NCAA's Final Four, they want to win.

Second, they are now in one-on-one, winner-take-all campaigns that inevitably boil down to a zero-sum choice of "if you lose, I win": if support for their opponent declines, their chances rise.

Winner-take-all elections have always been with us, but now are distorted by opinion polls, focus groups, slick TV ads, "push polling" and high-priced consultants who have mastered the science of mudslinging. Politicians and their consultants know that it is easier to drive the key "swing voters" away from opponents than attract them to yourself. All you need is a good wedge issue or some inflated smear.

Zero-sum, two-candidate choices are not inevitable, however. Reforms like proportional representation in legislative elections, instant runoff voting and fair access to debates hold the potential to increase the number of viable candidates and thus decrease incentives to attack -- just as the Republican campaign was more civil when there was a multi-candidate field.

Certainly the current race to the bottom raises profound questions for two-choice politics. Aggressive campaigns that present clear choices are fine, but we're seeing something more insidious: good people are discouraged from running, issues are simplistically debated and the governing process itself becomes just another part of a permanent, relentlessly negative campaign.

When personal attacks run rampant, nobody wins.

Rob Richie is executive director of The Center for Voting and Democracy and Steven Hill is its western regional director. They are co-authors of "Reflecting All of Us" (Beacon Press 1999).