In his article on President Obama’s deft ability to run an attack-oriented campaign operation without getting labeled a negative campaigner, Politico’s Ben Smith tried to place Obama in a historical perspective, noting how common place negative campaigning is in presidential politics. But in his attempt to say that Obama is somehow different than the historical norm, Smith uses a comparison that is ungrounded in the facts:
Attack politics, of course, are more the norm than the outlier in American politics. But while slash-and-burn attacks typically damage both candidates — see, for instance, George Bush’s low approval numbers when he was reelected — Obama has so far pulled off the difficult trick of remaining broadly personally popular even as Americans are unhappy with some of his policies and with the direction of the country, and taking little blame for tough tactics.
But were Bush’s approval numbers low when he was reelected? Not according to the polls held in the Roper Center’s archives. Three polls were taken on the day Bush was reelected, November 2, 2004, and Bush’s approval was above 50 percent in each of them:
In the same paragraph, Smith sets up an apples to oranges comparison. He cites Bush’s supposedly deflated approval rating as the standard for judging the effect of being seen to go negative, but then he argues that Obama’s personal popularity rather than his job approval rating is what has escaped the supposed downward pull of being seen as going negative.
To be fair, Smith is correct that there is a common misperception that Obama has largely eschewed negative campaigning, at least relative to other candidates. In fact, as John Sides has often been forced to point out, 50 percent of Obama’s 2008 general election campaign ads included attacks on McCain. In a similar vein, it’s often forgotten — Smith seems to implicitly make this mistake — that rather than Bush dominating Kerry in negativity, Bush and Kerry ran roughly the same amount of attack ads against each other, with Kerry running slightly more.
UPDATE: Responding to Nate Silver on a point unrelated to negative campaigning, Jonathan Chait notes that over the course of the 2004 campaign, “Bush’s approval ratings rose from the mid-forties to just over 50 percent.”