Did negative campaigning save Clinton?

March 5, 2008 11:27:52 PM PST
Exit polls are giving us a look at how Hillary Clinton pulled off Tuesday's night's big win. Voters who waited until the last minute to decide whom they would support, went overwhelmingly for Clinton. That has political watchers wondering what happened. How was it she was able to finish so strong?

A lot of things happened in the final days before Tuesday's primary. Teasing out what caused the big flow towards Hillary Clinton in each of the four states, is not an exact science, but there are some strong indications.

It could've been Barack Obama's stumbling answers over NAFTA. It could've been the picture of him dressed as a Somali elder. It might've been the start of the corruption trial of Tony Resko, a former financial backer.

The Obama campaign believes that his slump in the final hours was due to the 'It's 3 a.m.' Clinton ad. It was an ad that played on voter's fears and questioned Barack Obama's ability to handle a crisis.

"It's a sad but true fact that negative ads work in America. I wish they didn't," says Obama fundraiser Wade Randlett.

Randlett isn't alone. ABC7 political analyst, Bruce Cain, thinks the ad is probably the single biggest factor in Clinton's surge. He also thinks it was negative.

"I think the red phone ad, most people believe, went too far in making an insinuation about character," says Professor Cain.

Professor Cain says the concern now is that Obama will retaliate. In fact, Thursday the Obama campaign called for Clinton to release her tax records. Hard to imagine they aren't fishing for their own negative story line concerning Clinton's personal finances.

"If you loan yourself $5 million dollars and you're running your campaign with that $5 million dollars, you got to tell people where that $5 million dollars came from," says Randlett.

Professor Cain calls that response inevitable.

"It's like an arms race. Once these things get started, they escalate, they have a momentum of their own, and what we are hearing today is the first step in that arms race," says Professor Cain.

Cain says the downside is that going negative and personal alienates voters -- voters both Clinton and Obama will need if they want to win the White House.

After Clinton lost big in South Carolina, party insiders were able to steer Bill Clinton away from negative attacks, comparing Barack Obama to Jesse Jackson. But will those party elders step in again?

Ellen Malcolm, founder of Emily's List Political Action Committee, is a major fundraiser for the Clinton campaign. She does not see anything negative in Clinton's '3 a.m.' ad.

Malcolm: "I think that ad made the case for Hillary Clinton being the strongest candidate to protect the country."

ABC7 reporter Mark Mathews: "Are you concerned that you might alienate some of the voters you're going to need in the fall if you continue down that path?"

Malcolm: "I think it's important to show the distinctions."

Malcolm doesn't think it'll be a problem. It may not be, but the campaigns are taking the first steps down a dangerous path for the Democratic Party. When you look at the fights looming over superdelegates and the disqualified delegates from Florida and Michigan, Bruce Cain says it's mind numbing to think of all the ways the Democratic Party could blow itself up.