The 1988 presidential campaign, dominated by lacerating "sound bites" and negative television commercials, was the first application on the national stage of mass-media weaponry developed and honed in statewide races over the last decade, several media specialists said last week.
"It's always easier to go out and reinforce a negative impression of your opponent than a positive one of yourself," said Republican political consultant Edward J. Rollins. "Voters don't like it, and after every campaign you hear a lot of complaints. But the first rule of governing is to get elected."
Before 1980, when attack ads loosed by the National Conservative Political Action Committee helped defeat a half-dozen Democratic senators, candidates and political professionals viewed negative campaigning as a high-risk strategy, to be undertaken only with extreme care because it was thought to create voter resentment against the attacker.
But in succeeding election cycles, as more and more candidates won by using negative advertising, the taboo began to disappear. The dam burst in the Senate races of 1986, when punch-counterpunch became the norm. That year, Rollins said, "was about as tough, hard and dirty a year as I've ever seen."
The 1986 and other recent election cycles "predicted the 1988 general election campaign," said University of Texas communications Professor Kathleen Hall Jamieson. The lesson of those years, Jamieson said, was that "there is a strong advantage to the candidate who attacks early and defines the terrain, sculpts the opponent's image and then defines himself in the shadows."
It was a lesson that trickled up to the presidential primary campaigns of candidates in both political parties. This fall, it was vigorously applied by GOP nominee George Bush and, belatedly, by his Democratic rival, Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis.
"What is so frightening about this," Jamieson said, "is that many of us were naive in thinking that the nation as a whole was adequately protected from this kind of campaigning, that demagogic appeals could succeed at state levels but not at the national level."
Roger Ailes, Bush's senior media adviser and a leading pioneer of the punch-counterpunch strategy at the state level, said of the 1988 presidential race: "It was always my belief that the advertising effort that defined both candidates the best would win.
"What we were trying to do with Bush," he added, "was present him as a strong, experienced leader with a kind heart - which is who I believe him to be. And we also knew we would have to define Dukakis, who was trying to define himself as a conservative or a moderate. It was pretty clear from our research that Dukakis wasn't in the mainstream, not on the values scale and not on the issues scale. He's a real classic '60s liberal - that's who he is to his core. So we had to define him to the American people that way, keep the pressure on and run a dual campaign to define both people."
On the positive side, Ailes said, "One of the things I learned about (Bush) is that he absolutely loves children. We knew that side of him would be appealing to people and it was my job to make sure we had a camera there at times when we could project that."
On the negative side, Bush slammed Dukakis relentlessly on the stump - attacks that were sound bite-ready for the network news - while his campaign broadcast commercials depicting the Democratic nominee as a "risk" that "America can't afford."
In mid-September, after airing a spot slamming Dukakis on crime, the Bush campaign unleashed an ad claiming that Dukakis, as governor, had deliberately evaded cleaning up pollution in Boston Harbor. The spot featured footage of a sign reading, "Danger No Swimming - Radiation Hazard" - a vestige not of pollution, but of a defunct nuclear submarine maintenance station.
As with other Bush attacks, Dukakis didn't fire back until weeks later.
In the final weeks, the news media focused a spotlight on the Bush campaign's attack ads, questioning their fairness and putting Bush briefly on the defensive. "The ads Bush ran gave Dukakis his last hope of winning the election," Jamieson said. "He started to look like a fighter. Not that he suddenly became a more appealing candidate, but he became the underdog being hit below the belt, and that appeals to the American sense of fair play."
Whether such a campaign recurs in 1992 "depends on how the press interprets the election," Jamieson said. "If the press says that because Bush lied in his ads, he lost the endorsements of key newspapers and alienated voters who were otherwise going to support him, then the penalty to George Bush could be extremely severe and the chance of it happening again is smaller. But if the press says merely that this was an ingenious campaign, and there is no penalty, then it probably will happen again."