Columnists > Voices

The 'no-matter-what' factor

Campaign 2008 | Negative images may keep today's front-runners out of the White House

Issue: "A mighty fortress is our sect," Oct. 20, 2007

Political experts say that while most of us tend to look for the positive qualities any candidate brings to a particular race, the negatives are even more important. You want the positives, of course. But you can argue about those all day long. In the overall scheme of things, no candidate can rise higher than his or her negative image will allow.

It's what you might call the "no-matter-what" factor. It's the result of too many people saying, "Well, no matter what, there's no way I can ever vote for . . ."

So even though Hillary Clinton is the reputed front-runner right now among Democratic candidates, her own managers understand they have an uphill battle to fight just because there are so many people in the country (some polls say as many as 45 percent of the voting public) who tend to say, "Well, no matter what, there's no way I can ever vote for Hillary." Even the combination of a great campaign on her part and a host of weak opponents won't make it easy to win against such a staunchly negative mindset. Is it the fact that she's a woman? That she has an often-abrasive personality? That through her husband she's already had enough influence in the White House? Nobody knows for sure. Lots of folks just keep saying: "No matter what . . ."

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Mrs. Clinton's main opponent, though, has his own problems. Sen. Barack Obama, for all his popularity, also has notably high negatives. His relative youthfulness? The fact that he'd be the first African-American to serve as president? His unusual name, that sounds so overly much like Osama bin Laden? More than with Hillary Clinton, these are negative attitudes most people probably won't even admit to holding. But unmistakably, they're there. So once more-who really knows?

Yet it isn't as if the Democratic front-runners have a monopoly on negatives. Take a look at Rudy Giuliani, who currently seems to be leading the polls for Republicans. As reported in last week's WORLD, when a group of 45 conservative leaders got together late in September to evaluate the race, 42 of them were pretty blunt in their response: "No matter what," they said in various ways, but still in unison, "if the Republican Party nominates someone who has historically opposed the pro-life position, we will vote for someone else." I was in the room, and there was no doubt at all who was in everybody's mind when they laid down that gauntlet. Even if these miscellaneous spokesmen represented only 2 million or 3 million voters, Rudy Giuliani should not have been encouraged. For way too many people, his record on abortion and his own marital history are just too much.

Mitt Romney's problems with negatives are different, but maybe just as sharp. Say what you will, his Mormon background and affiliation are an insurmountable problem for tens of thousands of serious Christians. "If I just took him at face value and just listened to what he's saying," a friend said to me after we'd been with Romney for a political speech, "I'd be in his camp. But how do I do that, knowing all these bizarre things that he holds to?" The Romney negatives also include an almost-too-long list of issues where he has switched positions. "One or two or three flip-flops may be OK-especially if they're in the right direction," said the same friend. "But 20 flip-flops? I've counted them."

Fred Thompson may not have been an announced candidate long enough for his negatives to register-although his (and obviously John McCain's) involvement seven years ago in pushing through the McCain-Feingold campaign finance bill still rankles many conservative Republicans.

But the Thompson and McCain negatives, similar to those of Democrats like Bill Richardson and John Edwards, may be just a normal part of the partly-good-partly-bad equation by which every candidate gets measured. The negative baggage being carried by Clinton, Obama, Giuliani, and Romney, meanwhile, is more like a truckload of steamer trunks. The fact is that no candidate in any party can easily afford too many voters who say, "No matter what, I'm not going there."

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.


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