Hugh Reynolds: The power of negative thinking

Hugh Reynolds. (Photo by Phyllis McCabe)

While one candidate’s definition of a “negative campaign” might be considered issues-oriented by the other side, there is little question such tactics both turn off and turn on voters.

Voters I’ve talked to over the years are forever decrying negative campaigning. But experience suggests an almost prurient fascination with the dirt candidates dig up on each other. It’s like that with the media, too. Bad news sells, the more sensational, the better.

We New Yorkers are fortunate in one sense in that we do not live in a swing state where voters are being relentlessly bombarded with some of the worst negative campaigning since Bush-Kerry. “I can’t turn on my TV for any show without all the commercial time being filled with these nasty messages,” a visiting friend from swing-state Ohio complained last week. (An Obama stalwart, she was of course referring to Romney ads.)


Locally, we’re seeing two races — for state legislature the other for Congress — being played negatively.

Negativity, as noted, is often in the eye of the target. Questioned on a widely circulated flyer that depicted opponent Chris Gibson kicking Granny under the bus — with her heartbroken, care-giving daughter — Julian Schreibman called his “save-Medicare” literature “issue-oriented and fact-based.”

Fact is, Democrat Schreibman was down by double-digits to incumbent Republican Gibson last summer, but has closed the gap to perhaps high-single digits. That didn’t happen because people all of a sudden took a liking to a virtual unknown.

It’s sinking in. I was in a Kingston wiener shop on Monday where a young woman behind the counter expressed alarm that “those politicians are going to take away our Medicare.”

“Medicare is the third rail of American politics,” I told her. “No politician can get elected — or re-elected — by taking away anybody’s Medicare.”

“You want fries with that?” she said.

In the race for an open seat for state Senate in the new Ulster-Montgomery district, both candidates took the high road … until a few weeks ago.

Republican Assemblyman George Amedore of Rotterdam didn’t once mention his Democratic opponent Cecilia Tkaczyk in the dozens of flyers he mailed to residents since last summer. Tkaczyk, on a much smaller budget — some say a fifth of Amedore’s though that’s now changing — had been content to introduce herself and her family to voters, barely mentioning her foe.

The upshot of such feel-good tactics was that the “incumbent” — Amedore is the only candidate with a voting record — had almost been conceded the election. Until now.

With an influx of some $500,000 from so-called “campaign spending reform” forces, bare-bones Tkaczyk is suddenly perceived as competitive. The first of what will be surely a series of hard-hitting negative ads between now and Election Day hit airwaves and doorsteps last week. If the Schreibman experience is any indicator, Amedore has reason to be concerned.

Fun times on the editorial board

Back in the day, we ink-stained wretches in print media used to call standard pre-packaged images for use in advertising “clip art.” Apparently, there’s clip art for political ads, as evidenced by the image of a fat cat smoking hundred-dollar bills in a state Democratic Senate Campaign Committee’s recent anti-Amedore ad. Said to be a “Senate staffer.” I’ve seen this prop in other ads.

With Congress out of session for the campaign, Congressman Maurice Hinchey has plenty of time to attend testimonials in his honor, political rallies and debates between his would-be successors. Hinchey was in the audience for a debate in the Capital District last week after which a reporter asked his opinion of Gibson, a colleague for the last two years.

“He’s not an outrageous person. He’s better than a lot of them are,” Hinchey was quoted as replying. From the relentlessly anti-Republican congressman, that almost constituted high praise.

Schreibman and Gibson both appeared before our editorial boards this week, the Democrat for about an hour, the Republican for over two grueling hours. I swear I was going to jump across the table if Gibson came up with one more “five-point plan” on a complex subject. Somewhere deep into this monologue I wrote a note to myself: “This guy knows his stuff.”

Schreibman, in contrast, spoke in generalities when he wasn’t attacking the incumbent’s record.

One question I managed to get in through the colonel’s fusillade was why he has limited himself to only four terms (eight years) in office, voters willing.

“I don’t think the founders envisioned a political class,” he said. (In another part of his talk, Gibson referred not only to the Federalist Papers in general, but cited one by number.) “I like the idea of fresh perspective that will help in the renewal of our country. Eight years can make a huge difference. I’ve been there two years and I think I’ve made a difference.” Let’s see what he says when those eight years are up.

Schreibman offered an unexpected answer to the question on whether he could be as effective as a freshman congressman as Hinchey had been as a 20-year member, 16 years on the House Appropriations Committee.