Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Political Stereotyping

Here’s William Jacobson, a smart conservative, drawing an interesting parallel between the negative messaging directed at Scott Brown during his Massachusetts senatorial campaign and the negative messaging being directed now at Christine O’Donnell after her win in the Delaware Senate primary:
“The comparison of the long-shot campaigns of Scott Brown and Christine O'Donnell frequently draws the objection that Brown was viewed as a serious and moderate candidate, whereas O'Donnell is viewed as a non-serious extremist.

“As someone who followed the Brown campaign closely, I can tell you that this perception is wrong as to Brown.

“Once they woke up from their December 2009 slumbers, the Martha Coakley campaign, Democratic Party operatives, and the left-wing blogosphere went after Brown just as viciously as Castle and Coons supporters went and are going after O'Donnell.

“Brown was treated much as O'Donnell is being treated now, as a joke, unqualified, likely racist, homophobic, and a host of other epithets.

“The current view of Brown, which has taken hold over the past 9 months, has replaced the reality of what went on in January 2010.”
I think Jacobson’s kidding himself if he imagines that O’Donnell has a decent chance of being this election cycle’s Scott Brown. But I suspect Jacobson’s on to something when he suggests that the negative messaging directed at Brown helped his candidacy immensely, and may eventually help O’Donnell some too.

A lot of negative messaging about opposing candidates turns on the charge that they haven’t lived up to generally accepted standards of public conduct. Consider a campaign ad alleging that an opposition candidate has enriched himself at the public’s expense or clandestinely done political favors for the people financing his campaign. If that’s effective, it’s because it gives the target’s potential opponents another reason to oppose him, and his potential supporters a reason either not to support him, or to support him less enthusiastically than they otherwise would. Such ads sometimes willfully disseminate misinformation. But even when they do, they’re not especially divisive inasmuch as they stigmatize no one but the opposing candidate.

People with a media platform opposing Scott Brown didn’t attack him much personally, presumably because they couldn’t find the ammunition. Instead, they tried to take him down with stereotypes about Tea Partiers. Brown’s opponents thought they could persuade a substantial portion of the Massachusetts electorate that he wasn’t ready for political prime time because he was perfectly at home, culturally and ideologically, with those racist, delusional, rednecks who’d been shouting down sensible Democrats at town hall meetings the summer before.

Jacobson provides these examples:
• Brown's appearance almost completely nude in Cosmopolitan magazine while in law school was greeted with widespread mockery, and his nomination initially was viewed as a joke. The image below was plastered all over the place. One prominent left-wing blogger dubbed Brown "Senator Playmate."

• The Massachusetts Democratic Party circulated a mailer accusing Brown of wanting to deny medical care to rape victims.

• Brown was accused of being a "Birther."

• Brown was accused of supporting someone in a crowd who yelled about Coakley "shove a curling iron up HER butt."

• Brown was accused of supporting a "second revolution."

• Democrats accused Brown "of being a "far-right" politician backed by "right-wing radicals" by virtue of his ties to the conservative tea party movement."

• John Kerry accused Brown supporters of being "Swift Boaters" and Chris Dodd claimed Coakley was "being attacked by tea partiers and right-wing radicals."

• Chuck Schumer circulated a fundraising e-mail calling Brown a "far-right tea-bagger."
All of these messages turn on stereotypes that stigmatize a substantial block of voters. If they were as ineffective as they seem to have been in hindsight, it’s not because stereotypes can’t be put effectively to political use. Election observers seem to agree that George H.W. Bush got some mileage out of the Willie Horton ad that played on stereotypes about predatory African American males. The racial anxiety it excited arguably solidified Bush’s support among white voters while the ad repelled only a discrete and insular minority of African-Americans and liberals who wouldn’t have voted for Bush anyway. Even Lee Atwater would eventually concede that playing the race card against Dukakis wasn’t a demonstration of exemplary citizenship. But it probably worked as an electioneering technique because it mobilized a class of potential supporters that was much larger than the class of people it pushed into opposition.

But you didn’t need a crystal ball to see that the stereotypes in the anti-Brown messages weren’t anywhere near that well-targeted. They may have mobilized self-identified liberals by trafficking on their contempt for rank-and-file conservatives. But even in “liberal” Massachusetts, self-identified liberals probably comprise substantially less than a third of the electorate and they were probably coming out to vote against Brown anyway because of his strident opposition to ObamaCare.

The Tea Party stereotypes probably mobilized a much larger class of voters against the Massachusetts Democratic establishment. The Willie Horton ad offended African-Americans because they thought they were all being made to pay for one black man’s savage acts. Tea Party stereotypes stigmatize the much larger political constituency that sympathizes with the Tea Partiers' lawful revolt against the Democratic agenda. Everyone who shares some of their reservations gets the message loud and clear: establishment Democrats think they're airheads. That's what made voting for Scott Brown into an expression of self-respect on the part of a lot of people who’d never before voted for a Republican.

Democrats will be making a mistake, although probably not a fatal one, if they do the same thing to Christine O’Donnell that they did to Scott Brown.

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