By David Hill - 04/01/08 06:51 PM EDT
Conventional wisdom holds that Republican Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) would rather run against Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) than Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.). With negative opinions swirling around her and growing, it would seem the logical choice to prefer a race against Mrs. Clinton. But the opposite is probably true. John McCain knows that a campaign against Bill and Hillary Clinton would be a bloody battle that he’d rather avoid. Campaigning against Barack Obama would be a more civil affair.
Military men like John McCain learn their craft through the study of history. Great battles are examined for insights on strategy and tactics. When John McCain came out of the U.S. Naval Academy, he probably knew what sort of war he would wage if ever given command responsibility.
But political candidates like McCain are seldom so well-prepared when it comes to fighting campaign wars. Sure, a few first-time candidates may have hung around a campaign or read a political memoir, but most learn the craft of waging political war through personal experience.
In the case of John McCain, there is little to suggest he’s well-prepared to win a highly negative battle with warriors like the Clintons. Look at the history. McCain first ran as a war hero in 1986 for Barry Goldwater’s seat in the United States Senate. The Associated Press commented at the time that McCain “had a relatively easy time gaining election.” Little was learned about negative campaigning.
During this formative period, McCain probably did hear some warnings about attack campaigning from his consultant Jay Smith, who was also helping Jock McKernan run for governor of Maine in 1986. McKernan suffered in the polls when his Democratic opponent attacked, but Smith helped the Republican rebound with ads in which ordinary Maine voters criticized negative campaigning. At the time, Smith speculated, “I have a theory that people are just revolted by this incessant throwing of mud.
“I just think people don’t like it; they will punish candidates who run shabby campaigns,” he warned. It is inconceivable that “professor” Jay Smith didn’t teach this “theory” and lesson of campaigning to his up-and-coming pupil in Arizona.
Going into his 1992 reelection fight, speculation abounded that his brush with the Keating 5 would fuel negative attacks. The Arizona Daily Star commented in a 1991 analysis, “In an age of negative campaigning, any McCain opponent would be stupid not to commission a few television commercials set on some sandy beach that would pass for Keating’s hideaway in the Bahamas, where McCain and his family vacationed on a number of occasions with Keating and his family.” Student McCain was learning another lesson, probably that negative campaigning is ugly and can even touch your family.
While McCain won his 1992 race handily, he doubtless learned even more about negative campaigns from the Democratic primary to pick his opponent. The gory battle between Truman Spangrud and Claire Sargent left neither in a position to combat even a Keating-tinged McCain. In 1998, McCain also witnessed an incredibly ugly GOP primary contest for attorney general of Arizona. The pupil learned another lesson.
With all this in mind, as he entered the 2000 presidential race, McCain became the staunchest critic of negative advertising and received many plaudits across the nation for his clean-campaign pledge, particularly from the editorial press and big Republican donors. The latter generally detest bloody primaries.
Such positive feedback undoubtedly reinforced McCain’s sense that people don’t like negative campaigns.
The sordid mess in South Carolina’s 2000 primary against Bush sealed that impression. And the failures of Mitt Romney’s assaults on McCain confirmed his view that negative ads don’t win campaigns.
So John McCain wants Barack Obama for an opponent. Their styles, emphasizing contrasts and comparisons rather than attacks, are better suited for each other.
Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.