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Be Careful Where You Aim That Mud, Hillary


There’s a troubling read from the Iowa Independent today:

Jason Eness-Potter, a Democrat from Iowa City, answered his phone May 25 without expecting an extensive probe of his political views, but that’s what he got. “I was on the phone with the person for about 40 minutes” before getting tired of the questions and ending the survey, he said. From his sketch of the questions asked, we can draw a few inferences:

. . . The caller identified his questions as a survey about “voter persuasion.” After asking the standard party ID questions (roughly, “Are you a Democrat?” and “Would you consider yourself moderate, somewhat progressive, or very progressive?”), the questions became more issue-specific. Eness-Potter recalls being asked, among other things, “Do you consider yourself a feminist?” Answers to the issue questions were in terms of a 1 to 9 scale.

. . . Next, the questions turned specifically to the candidates. The caller also asked the standard candidate ID question, “Who are you most likely to support in the caucuses?” (Eness-Potter identified himself as leaning towards Sen. Obama.) A standard, public poll may have finished here, but the caller pressed on with questions about Sen. Clinton. He asked first what Eness-Potter’s general approval rating of Clinton was, following up with carefully worded questions about Clinton: Do you feel that she is too strong of a feminist? Do you plan to support another candidate “because [Sen. Clinton] stands by her convictions on her war vote and refuses to back down?”

Then, Eness-Potter got a glimpse of what may become the positive side of Clinton’s message: “During Bill Clinton’s administration, the Clintons helped to create 100,000 jobs in Iowa. After hearing this, is your opinion of Sen. Clinton higher or lower?” The caller went on to ask a few questions about Clinton’s campaign platform, asking whether specific campaign promises, as worded by the campaign’s pollster, make Jason more or less likely to support her.

But the survey didn’t end there. As Eness-Potter’s patience continued to wane, the caller started into the negative questions about Clinton’s opponents. Although he cut the caller off fairly quickly after he saw where the caller was headed, he recalled two questions — one about Sen. Barack Obama and the other about former Sen. John Edwards — that were particularly memorable.

On Sen. Obama, the caller’s question had to do with the war: Paraphrased, it was “Sen. Obama boasts of his consistent opposition to the war, but he has contradicted himself by voting for appropriation bills to fund it. Does this make you approve of Sen. Obama more or less?”

And on Edwards, the subject was, predictably, about his $400 haircut a month or so ago.

It was roughly at that point in the call that Eness-Potter excused himself and hung up –- after the caller admitted to him that the survey was commissioned by the Clinton campaign.

. . . A similar message poll that went out to voters in New Hampshire has been documented on other blogs.

Sounds like Hillary’s trying to figure out the fastest way to flame out of the 2008 campaign. Anyone who’s paid any attention to elections over time knows that the dynamics of a multi-candidate race make negative campaigning suicidal: Voters may be driven away from the target of the attack, but they’re repelled by the person who launched it as well.

Democratic presidential-race strategists in particular should know about this rule of thumb, since Howard Dean and Dick Gephardt demonstrated it so vividly in Iowa in 2004, tearing each other apart over the airwaves and opening the field in the closing days for John Kerry and John Edwards. Any votes Clinton succeeds in peeling away from Obama with her smear tactics are likely to go straight to Edwards, and vice versa.

Even if she finds the perfect balance of mudslinging to stagger away with the nomination for the White House, Hillary might find in the fall that by turning the primaries into an exercise in mutual destruction, she’s reduced her prize to worthlessness. (The Democratic primary candidates in California’s gubernatorial election last year proved this through a viciously cannibalistic contest that enabled a previously vulnerable Gov. Arnold What’s-his-name to sail effortlessly to a second term.)

And don’t even get me started on how lamely spun the “positive” questions in that poll are. As someone who still remembers 1992-94 well enough to have a reservoir of pro-Hillary feelings, I neverless have felt ominous vibes about her 2008 candidacy, noting back in January:

. . . if she thinks she can just drift into the White House on fundraising and name recognition without any motivating reason why she is the right President for this time, she’s in for a large and unpleasant surprise.

Rather than trying to be invisible inoffensive and stockpiling cold cash, Hillary would be better off with one-fourth the money and a clear sense of what she’d do if she was President.

From the sound of these polls she’s running, it seems like Clinton hasn’t figured out that communicating a clear sense of what she’d do if she was President isn’t just the most idealistic way to run, it’s the most practical.

(P.S. I didn’t watch or read about the last Democratic debate, because… well, because it’s more than six freakin’ months until the Iowa caucuses. For anyone who did feel like catching the pre-Broadway run, what did you think of Clinton’s message?)

(Photo of Hillary wondering where the FDL left sidebar went by Larry Downing of Reuters.)

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Swopa has been sharing prescient, if somewhat anal-retentive, analysis and garden-variety mockery with Internet readers since 1995 or so, when he began debunking the fantasies of Clinton-scandal aficionados on Usenet. He is currently esconced as the primary poster at Needlenose (