The Effects of Attacks

The guys at The Stump ponder the difference in negative campaigning, the impact of Obama’s “new politics” therein, between the primary and the general. Crowley offers this:

…an interesting difference between Obama-Hillary and Obama-McCain is that the McCain camp hasn’t, that I’ve seen, responded to Obama’s shots with squeals about how he’s betraying the “politics of hope.” You’ll recall that, for months, that was Howard Wolfson’s first reaction every time Obama so much as looked at Hillary crosswise. As it turned out, though, Obama was mostly able to get away with some pretty rough shots at Hillary (remember his mailers about her health care mandate?) without suffering much blowback. (Or ask Bill Clinton about this, whom one suspects still mutters into the mirror about that “hit job on me” when he’s brushing his teeth at night.

Now I’m not one to make the mistake of overestimating the attention span of the American electorate, but then I do suppose we have to be talking about people watching to be talking about an effect, but I’d humbly offer up this explanation; voters can differentiate between substantive “attacks” and personal hit jobs. That is to say, there seems to be an inate difference between “Hillary wants to tell you what you have to do, and if you don’t want health insurance she’s going to garnish your wages,” or even “Obama’s healthcare plan doesn’t deserved to be called ‘universal healthcare,'” and “my opponent would gladly lose a war to win a campaign,” (and obviously outright lying about your opponents positions). Sure, particularly dedicated supporters may bristle at them all the same, but if we’re talking about the effects of such attacks on leaners or uncommitted voters, it seems that there is at least some level of ability to distinguish between “fair” attacks on matters of policy and substance and completely unfounded personal shots. For as heated as it was, the primary campaign really didn’t have much in the way of purely personal attacks, at least not from the candidates themselves, whereas the last month or so of the McCain campaign has been mostly nothing but a series of completely unsubstantive attacks on Obama.