Attack Politics in Presidential Nomination Campaigns: An Examination of the Frequency and Determinants of Intermediated Negative Messages against Opponents

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This article explores the negative campaign messages made by presidential nomination candidates on their opponents. Using a compilation of national and state media accounts of candidate attack activity from the 1992 Democratic nomination race, we seek to answer the questions -- are the intermediated attacks made by presidential nomination candidates random events or are they predictable consequences of measurable variables? Moreover, when candidates attack, who is their likely target? We find that intermediated candidate attacks can be predicted based on a number of conditions. Among these conditions are competitive positioning, reward factors and media-related conditions. Moreover, the general foci of attacks appear to be limited to attacking those who are competitively in the top tier. Attacks vary both in their frequency and in their nature depending on the competitive stage of the campaign. The systematic evaluation of these opponent-focused negative messages and their role in candidate strategy and voter evaluation is important for understanding presidential nomination politics and strategic communication in elections in general.

Candidates for presidential nominations and elections, in general, want to win. In order to do so they must defeat their opponents. But the strategies they use are varied. Some of these have been studied closely-resource allocation strategy and its impact, for example (Gurian 1996; Welch 1976; Aldrich 1980; Orren 1985; Parent, Jillson, and Weber 1987; Haynes, Gurian, and Nichols 1997). Another area of interest is the strategic use of methods of political communication, particularly political advertising (Just et al. 1996; West 1994; Roberts and McCombs 1994; Christ, Thorson, and Caywood 1994). Of recent intense scrutiny has been the use of negative advertising in political campaigns (Ansolabehere, Iyengar, Simon, and Valentino 1994; Kern and Just 1995; Mayer 1996).

One area that has been virtually unexplored, however, is the use of alternative means for criticizing an opponent. One of these is the use of the news media as an intermediary delivery option. While a more difficult medium for candidates to control, it is one to which they often turn. While they are sometimes unsuccessful in obtaining news coverage of their criticisms of opponents, when their messages come in the form of "news" they may be more convincing to voters. Particularly for those candidates with limited resources, this outlet may be their only hope to reach the public.

In the context of multi-candidate nomination campaigns only a few scholars have focused on the antecedents of attack behavior or the targets of these attacks. Aside from the seminal work of John Aldrich (1980) and a few other works focusing on winnowing effects (Matthews 1978; Brams 1978; Marshall 1981), and Gurian's (1996) theoretical work on defeating behavior, our understanding of competitive behavior among candidates is limited. Yet the attack behavior that precipitates negative campaigning is an important aspect of campaign competition. Moreover, the recent "rules" changes in the presidential nomination process, particularly frontloading and "mega-delegate" events like Super Tuesday, may alter the role that attack strategy may play and its impact from what it was previously.

We are interested in the conditions that precipitate negative campaigning. Are the attacks made by candidates on their opponents random events or are they predictable consequences of measurable variables? To some extent negative campaigning must occur. Candidates need to contrast themselves with their opponents. This is particularly true during multi-candidate primaries when the field consists of intra-party candidates who generally hold similar issue positions (Marshall 1983; Norrander 1986). Generally, when the field is crowded the public is paying little attention and thus, candidates must seek to distinguish themselves from their competition, both within and outside their party Inevitably this must involve comparison, and comparison often takes a negative form. …