Want to make your opponent rich? Attack him.
Negative campaigning works. It's one of those mantras you hear a thousand times. Sure, it may alienate voters and suppress turnout, but it moves polls, and all the various goody-goody efforts to stop it have foundered on this basic fact of political life. Obviously, appealing to their civic duty and sense of fair play is not getting candidates to stop going negative. So, maybe it's time for a new argument: Negative campaigning can make your opponent rich.
Minnesota Rep. Michelle Bachmann learned this the hard way. On Friday, she suggested on Hardball that Barack Obama is anti-American and proposed that members of Congress be vetted for patriotism. "I wish the American media would take a great look at the views of the people in Congress and find out, are they pro-America or anti-America?" she said. "I think people would love to see an exposé like that."
By Monday afternoon, her Democratic opponent, Elwyn Tinklenberg, had raised more than $800,000 online. (Before that, it had taken him a year to raise $1 million.) The money, plus all the national attention, quickly turned an expected Bachmann win into an October surprise, with Bachmann now backstroking furiously and Tinklenberg surging.
Others, too, have enriched their opponents by attacking them. Sarah Palin's speech at the Republican National Convention, in which she mocked community organizers and Barack Obama's voting record, drew rave reviews. More than $1 million poured into RNC coffers in the next 24 hours. But by the time John McCain went onstage the following night, Barack Obama had raked in nearly $10 million—his biggest daily haul so far.
Online fundraising makes negative attacks even riskier—and umbrage even more profitable. When voters see their favorite candidates attacked, they don't have to smash their keyboard anymore. Now they can click "Donate." Plus, there's a thrill to seeing your money transfer immediately into their coffers, which campaigns often display as thermometers. It's cathartic in a way that filling out a form and walking down to the mailbox never was. (No, I would not know.)
All of which has led to a curious spectacle: When your opponent launches an attack on you, you may want to publicize it. On the last night of the RNC, the Obama campaign popped a vein in an e-mail blast: "[T]he Republicans mocked, dismissed, and actually laughed out loud at Americans who engage in community service and organizing." Other times, campaigns will only hint at the offense. "I've heard some pretty unspeakable things in the past few days—deeply offensive smears that we'll hear over and over again until Election Day," "Joe Biden" wrote in an e-mail without naming any of them. Campaigns sometimes even attempt a double-double: In April, Obama tried to turn anger over his "bitter" comments back to his advantage—by expressing outrage at the outrage and asking for contributions.
The danger here is that of the boy who cried wolf. Anyone on Obama's e-mail list has received dozens of outraged messages in recent weeks about stem cells, the "bridge to nowhere," teaching sex ed to kindergartners, the Keating Five, golden parachutes, the Wall Street bailout, and other unspecified political attacks from the McCain campaign. After so much outrage, only the truly offensive insults really can crack the wallets.
Has all this umbrage-fueled fundraising reduced the level of negative campaigning? Not judging by the current tone. McCain surrogates continue to discuss Jeremiah Wright and Obama's past drug use; Obama surrogates continue to distort McCain's health care plan. A Wisconsin study found in early October that "nearly all" of McCain's ads were negative. (A month earlier, Obama had been more negative.) But there's a learning curve. It's going to take time for campaigns to factor the full costs of negative campaigning—both reputational and financial—into their daily decisions.
And even when they do, it's unclear whether the drawbacks will outweigh the benefits. After all, if you're not going to discuss your opponent's tangential and irrelevant relationships, who will?
Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.
Photograph of Rep. Michelle Bachmann, R-Minn., by Alex Wong/Getty Images.