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Mudslinging at debates risky but can be effective, experts say

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton speak during the second presidential debate at Washington University in St. Louis, Sunday, Oct. 9, 2016. (AP Photo/John Locher)

The presidential debate at Washington University in St. Louis on Sunday night went off the rails in some ways before it even began, but it did eventually get back on track.

Prior to the debate, Donald Trump held a press event with three women who claim Bill Clinton sexually assaulted or harassed them and a woman a woman whose rapist Hillary Clinton was appointed to defend as an attorney in the 1970s. The women read brief statements that Trump’s campaign streamed live on Facebook.

According to the Washington Post, Trump wanted the women to sit in his VIP box at the debate and force Bill Clinton to face them. The Commission on Presidential Debates did not allow that, but the fact that it was even a possibility gives some indication of the tone of the event that followed.

In the first few minutes of the debate, after the two candidates did not shake hands, Trump was confronted by moderators Anderson Cooper and Martha Raddatz about comments he made in a recently unearthed video from 2005 where he bragged about sexually assaulting women.

Trump insisted that is not what he said and apologized for the language he used in the recording. Clinton responded that it was not an isolated incident, listing other offensive comments he has made about different people and groups.

That led Trump to bring up the unproven allegations of sexual assault against Clinton’s husband and the questionable assertion that she enabled his behavior.

Much of the first 30 minutes of the debate was personal and ugly. That eventually gave way to more substantive discussions of terrorism, Syria, health care, taxes, and other issues that polls suggest are of more importance to voters.

Later in the debate, Trump threatened that if elected he would have the Justice Department appoint a special prosecutor to investigate Clinton’s email practices as secretary of state. The FBI concluded a yearlong investigation of the matter in July and no charges were filed.

Clinton commented at one point that someone with Trump’s temperament should never control the justice system.

“Because you’d be in jail,” Trump responded. Campaign surrogates have insisted that was a joke, but the campaign posted a video online highlighting it Monday and he did very clearly say his administration would open a criminal investigation of Clinton.

Clinton’s attacks on Trump never reached quite that level of vitriol, but she hit him hard for alleged bigotry, unfitness for office, and lack of understanding of policy.

If the 2016 race is devolving into the most negative campaign in recent history, experts say there is little incentive for either candidate to clean it up. Voters may say they do not like the negativity, but that does not mean it is ineffective.

“It’s not the same thing to hate it and to say it doesn’t work,” said Dan Franklin, an associate professor of political science at Georgia State University. “Those are two different things.”

Whether or not it works depends on what one considers the goal to be. Trump may not win new supporters by attacking Bill Clinton, but if he leaves some voters too disgusted to vote for either candidate, that can be good enough.

“You gain as much traction in the election from suppressing the other side’s vote as you do from getting your side to vote,” Franklin said.

He made a clear distinction between “negative” campaigning and “dirty” campaigning. Dirty campaigning is built on inaccurate or irrelevant allegations about the opponent, but truthful negative statements about the other candidate are different and should be expected.

Running a 30-second negative ad that will be seen by millions of viewers and could reduce the opponent’s turnout is more cost-effective than paying for buses and staff to mobilize the same number of your own supporters on Election Day.

“There has been negative campaigning in the American system since the beginning,” Franklin said. “It is a structural feature of our system.”

He cited the 1824 race between John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson as one of the ugliest.

With the history that Trump and Clinton have, there is much fertile ground for legitimate negative campaigning against both of them.

“It’s not entirely clear to me that a lot of the negative campaigning that’s going on in this race is dirty campaigning,” Franklin said.

Issues like Trump’s offensive statements and Clinton’s private email use can help voters understand the true character of the nominees, and that is extremely relevant to choosing a president. While light on policy discussion, the early portion of the debate was valuable in illuminating those questions.

Kerwin Swint, a professor at Kennesaw State University and author of “Mudslingers: The 25 Dirtiest Campaigns of all Time,” said the vicious personal attacks seen Sunday night were atypical of recent election cycles.

Although some negative campaigning can be effective, Swint warned that voters bristle at overly personal attacks. However, he added that the 2016 race has already defied much of the conventional wisdom of political science, so there is a possibility that assumption will be subverted.

This debate may have gone further into the mud than others in the immediate past, but Swint said presidential campaigns in the mid-1800s were dirtier than people often presume and possibly worse than anything seen today.

Even if voters say they have grown weary of the negativity of the race, tens of millions of them still tuned in on Sunday night despite the near-certainty that a significant portion would be devoted to mudslinging and relitigating past controversies.

“It makes great TV,” Swint said. “I was riveted and a lot of Americans were riveted.”

According to Peter Kastor, a professor of history at Washington University in St. Louis, debates in recent years have been pretty acrimonious but the 2016 debates are worse.

“The level of personal antipathy between them is at a depth that I can’t remember from a previous debate,” he said.

Kastor said the opening round of questions about Trump’s 2005 comments set a tone that the debate never really recovered from, even though it did eventually delve into policy issues.

“Because the debate started on matters of personal behavior, there was nowhere for it to go but down,” he said.

Having seen Republican primary debates devolve into insult-riddled chaos, Aaron Kall, director of debate at the University of Michigan, said it is understandable that Clinton did not engage with Trump’s worst accusations.

“At every stake where she had the ability to escalate and further get in the muck and mire with Trump, she chose not to,” Kall said.

Clinton certainly did go negative at times, but she was less aggressive than some supporters hoped she would be and she let some openings to attack pass her by.

“We don’t pay attention to Donald Trump’s antics. We pay attention to what the voters want to talk about,” Clinton chief strategist Joel Benenson told reporters after the debate.

When it comes to Trump’s most extreme allegations, like the sexual assault claims against Clinton’s husband, Franklin said pivoting away to another subject like she often did might have been her best option.

“What do you say to that?” he said. “They make outrageous charges and all you can really say is that’s not true. How do you prove in a presidential debate on television in two minutes that what he said is not true?”

Even if an allegation is true, a candidate might be able to get away with denying it and moving on, as Mike Pence did at the vice presidential debate by repeatedly denying Trump said things that he quite publicly said.

Having an extended argument about a controversial subject just calls further attention to it and voters may not pick up on the nuances of the candidate’s answers.

Franklin contrasted Clinton’s long, combative answer to questions about her email use on Sunday with her brief acknowledgment of the mistake at the first debate.

“The longer you talk about it, the worse things are,” he said.

Clinton did sidestep questions about her husband’s conduct.

“She did what she always does,” Swint said. “She tries to laugh it off… Frankly, she’s been fairly successful in handling it that way.”

With less than a month until Election Day and one more debate to come, the race may only get messier from here.

In the spin room after the debate, Trump surrogate Dr. Ben Carson expressed frustration with the tone and content of presidential debates in general.

“I didn’t see anything that was particularly rude considering the way debates tend to go in our country these days,” Carson said of Sunday’s event.

Carson said debates should be about “the future of our country,” not petty personal insults. He offered up one possible solution to prevent the at times incessant sniping on stage in the future.

“Let me put it this way: if I was in charge of debates, I would be able to control both of their microphones,” he said.

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