It's a site worthy of exploring because it provides excellent examples of how much has changed in the past fifty-five years and also how little has changed. The site gets the Comrade Kevin Seal of Approval, hands down. To quickly summarize, The Living Room Candidate features the actual TV ads run by all participating major candidates in every election year since 1952. Political science geeks like me eat this shit up. I found myself entranced by the evolution of media in politics, the establishment of central campaign themes in every party, and the framework of party platforms that are often still in effect today.
I do have to admit that I don't recall seeing many of these ads when they originally ran and a major reason why is that Alabama has never been a particularly competitive state, even as far back as the 1800's. As such, neither party has felt compelled to feel the need to bother even trying, placing their money, resources, and TV spots in hotly contested states instead. Immediately after the Reconstruction, the Democratic party grabbed a stranglehold on state politics, making it little more than a one-party-state. FDR's New Deal reforms further reinforced its stature as a Democratic mainstay. It wasn't until 1964, when it was one of a handful of states to give its electoral votes to Barry Goldwater, that the tide began to change. By 1980, Alabama voted solidly GOP in Presidential Elections, a tradition it hasn't broken. The last Democratic candidate to win Alabama was Carter in 1976, and even that was a narrow win.
I will say this. After having taken the time to closely examine over fifty years of television commercials, one motif in particular I found to be glaring obvious. Candidates who put their opponent on the defensive with a series of well-crafted, aesthetically pleasing, highly critical, scathingly negative ads usually won. Those who skillfully smeared the reputations of their opponents almost always won. Those who stretched the truth to suit their own needs almost always won. Those who struck first almost always won. Those who did not hesitate to respond decisively and effectively to the charges and criticisms of their opponents almost always won.
In comparison, candidates who either refused to go negative or went negative far too late almost always lost. Better to reign in hell than rule in heaven? I wouldn't use so drastic an analogy, just to say that politics are not light and sweetness. Candidates who do not harness the awesome power of negative reinforcement, fear, and scare-tactics almost always end up in second place. In my opinion, one can fight it and lose, or employ it reluctantly and win. Naturally, negative campaigning can be taken to an extreme and such were the tactics of Karl Rove. Instead of being cautious and carefully weighted in the use of negative advertising, Rove embraced it with open arms. His dirty tricks and tactics took mudslinging to extreme lengths. This we do not need to see ever again, from any party's candidate.
Negative reinforcement is a much more potent means of securing attention; I suppose that's because we as human animals respond much more acutely towards threats to our personal wellbeing and our survival. Positive reinforcement does not have the same sort of power. Yes, I agree it would be nice if we would evolve to the point that these unfortunate realities were not so, but as yet, we have not.
In every election cycle, some candidate stands up to tell the American People that politics as usual are no good and must change. In every election cycle, a candidate decides to be supremely ethical and makes an attempt to seem above the fray. In every election cycle, someone advances the optimistic, idealistic notion that noble intentions, positivity, and good sportsmanship are sufficient in and of themselves to win elections. This time around, it's been Barack Obama who has been the latest reincarnation of politician to embrace this policy. As I have mentioned several times before, his hesitance to attack his opposition in ways that are hard-hitting, take-no-prisoners, and aggressive is the primary reason why he remains in second place to Hillary Clinton.
The ONLY time in recent history when an almost exclusively upbeat, positive overall message has won an election occurred in the 1976 election, which pitted Carter against Ford. In saying that, let me strongly emphasize how unusual that particular election was. A nation weary of political scandal and largely furious at President Ford for pardoning Nixon, would have elected a chimpanzee President. Indeed, at one point during the race, Carter held a huge 30 point lead over Ford. It rapidly disintegrated due to a few ill-advised statements and actions made by the former Georgia governor. To wit, Ford himself didn't close the gap, rather Carter's missteps did.
To expand this argument, the political graveyard is littered with candidates who simply didn't step up to the plate and adjust to changing times. Many of them might easily have won if they had been more acutely aware of current trends. Many also made crucial mistakes in stating their case to the American people. These miscues go far beyond just the reluctance to go in for the kill. They can also include a hesitance to properly defend themselves. I'll cite a few examples.
- In 1988, Michael Dukakis didn't respond early enough to a battery of charges leveled at him by the Bush 41 campaign, costing him the election. In particular, he didn't provide a definitive counter-attack to the infamous Willie Horton ad until it was too late. Wishing to seem strong on defense, Dukakis strapped on a helmet and rode in the belly of a tank. Instead of looking powerful and firmly in control, he came across looking like little more than an uncoordinated weakling. The ad was such a disaster that Bush's team ridiculed it in its own spot.
- In 1952, Adlai Stevenson, feeling that television advertising was undignified, refused to be featured personally in any of his campaign spots. Little more than glorified radio spots, his political ads did not make effective use of the new medium of television. Dwight Eisenhower, however, had no qualms in putting his face out over the airwaves. Ike's snappy, Madison Avenue designed ads were light years ahead of anything Stevenson could muster.
- In 2004, as we all unfortunately remember, John Kerry's campaign was effectively derailed by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. This group's series of ads cast serious doubt on Kerry's assertion that he was a genuine war hero, an issue which he had made the central theme of his campaign. The ads worked so effectively that many voters perceived the Democratic nominee to be a manipulative phony rather than a true patriot. The Senator from Massachusetts finally responded to the ads, but his delay in doing so cost him dearly at the polls.