Mark Shields: No negative mandate to govern

Mark Shields

Mark Shields

On the eve of the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York City, I asked former GOP chairman and then-Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour who would win that year’s presidential campaign. Barbour said, “Mark, if this election is about John Kerry, then George W. Bush will be re-elected.” I then asked, “But what if the election instead were about Republican President George W. Bush?” “In that case, Mark,” he replied, “George W. Bush will carry Mississippi.”

The 2016 election is even more so a referendum on the likely opponents. In the most recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey, registered voters were asked to identify whether or not they “could see (themselves) supporting” a certain candidate for president in 2016. Just 41 percent of those polled could see themselves supporting Clinton in November, while 58 percent, a sizeable majority, said they could not support her. For Trump, the numbers were even worse: Only 31 percent of voters could see themselves supporting the New Yorker for the White House, and a smashing 68 percent answered they could not see themselves supporting him. Let it be noted that a plurality of voters (49 percent) said they could see themselves supporting Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders for president.

Why such resounding lack of support for the respective front-runners? One reasonable conclusion is that if Trump — or Clinton — were running unopposed on the November ballot, he or she would lose.

So, the most inviting campaign strategy for both candidates is to focus the electorate’s attention almost exclusively on the failings of character and career, and the total unacceptability, of the opponent. As one wise Republican man explains: “If this race is about Trump, he loses. Trump’s only hope is to somehow make the race only about her.”

Sadly, the 2016 electorate could be quite receptive to such a negative campaign strategy. As Emory University political science professor Dr. Alan Abramowitz, and Emory political-science Ph.D. student Steven Webster write, “for a growing percentage of American voters, negative feelings toward the opposing party outweigh positive feelings toward their own party.” In fact, as recently as 1980, Abramowitz and Webster report, some 55 percent of voters gave the opposing party a neutral or positive rating, and just 27 percent of votes gave a negative rating the opposing party. But by 2012, the U.S. political climate had been poisoned to where a mere 26 percent gave a neutral or favorable rating to the opposing party, but a thumping 56 percent delivered an emphatic thumbs-down to the other side.

The response to a negative campaign, given the already-sour voters in 2016, will go something like this: “OK, our candidate is admittedly imperfect and, possibly, no day at the beach as a person. But look at the opponent, who delights in sticking bamboo shoots under the fingernails of widows and orphans, and who would steal a hot stove and then come back for the smoke.

The tragedy of such a negative campaign is that when it’s over, all we will have agreed upon is that the losing candidate should not be president. We won’t have a mandate — let alone an agreement — about what we, as a people), and our new president should do (or will do) together to make ours a truly national family, where everyone has a place at the table, and where the strong are just and the weak are secure.

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