Yet presidential historians and political scientists interviewed by Politico scoffed at the notion, suggesting McCain’s approach is no harsher than those used in previous modern campaigns and certainly not by comparison to many historic campaigns.
“The idea that this campaign is the sleaziest ever is absurd,” said David Greenberg, a professor of history and media studies at Rutgers who has written books on Presidents Coolidge and Nixon. "In fact, there's been very little that's below the belt, and aides have been fired on all sides when they've gotten near, let alone crossed, the lines. There's nothing at all to rival the Swift-boating of Kerry in 2004, the imputations of un-Americanness to Dukakis in 1988, the anti-Catholic stuff against Al Smith in 1928 and the regular resort to slander and character assassination of so many 19th-century campaigns."
“It’s not new or novel,” said Vanderbilt University political science professor John Geer, author of "In Defense of Negativity." “McCain's tactics are no different than what we've seen in recent years," he said. "Presidential campaigns in the past few decades were worse in many ways.”
Geer, who researched his 2006 book in part by watching virtually every presidential campaign spot from 1964 to 2004, points to the 1964 election, among others.
In that contest between President Lyndon Johnson and Sen. Barry Goldwater, the Democratic president offered the notorious “Daisy Girl” ad that suggested election of his Republican rival would lead to nuclear Armageddon. A lesser-known but equally hard-hitting LBJ attack portrayed a young girl licking an ice cream cone as a woman off-camera suggested nuclear radioactive material generated by a Goldwater administration would poison the food supply.
And it’s often forgotten that 1984 Democratic nominee Walter Mondale ran a bruising set of attack ads against President Ronald Reagan. Channeling LBJ, themes included possible nuclear war — footage of children was interspersed with ballistic missiles and nuclear explosions — along with slashing attacks over fiscal and foreign policy, Geer said.
At issue this year are McCain campaign claims and ads that several news organizations have branded as false or, at best, highly misleading. Both McCain and his running mate Sarah Palin have, if nothing else, played fast and loose with her role as an anti-earmarking champion. In a television ad, the campaign also asserts that Obama, as an Illinois state senator, backed legislation to teach “‘comprehensive sex education’ to kindergartners.” The truth is that the legislation allowed local school boards to teach “age-appropriate” sex education, not comprehensive lessons to kindergartners.
Obama’s campaign has also cried foul over a recent McCain ad claiming Obama and congressional Democrats plan to push forward "painful tax increases on working American families." According to the nonpartisan FactCheck.org, the ad is flat-out wrong because Obama’s economic plan would produce a tax cut for the majority of American households, with middle-income earners saving the larger percentage of their incomes.
Then there is last week’s “lipstick on a pig” controversy, in which the Obama campaign contends the Republican ticket is feigning outrage over Obama’s use of that phrase. Obama insists his remark was not directed at McCain running mate Palin, whose nomination aceptance speech had highlighted her lipstick as a reflection of her tenacious political demeanor; the McCain camp claims it was an example of outright sexism.
“Taking one quote and blowing it out of context is commonplace. That’s what you do in a campaign,” said Julian E. Zelizer, professor of history at Princeton University.
It’s possible that the 2008 campaign has appeared to some as if it’s among the sleaziest because the candidates quickly dispensed with pleasantries that usually begin general election campaigns. That may be a reflection of the truncated general election campaign because the Democratic nominating contest dragged on through June and the nominating conventions were not held until after the Beijing Olympics.
“What surprises me about this campaign is how they’ve barely even bothered with intro, feel-good ads,” Geer said. “It’s certainly starting out pretty negative, but again, you’ve got high stakes, you’ve got two candidates that disagree with each other on issues.”
It should not be surprising that McCain’s campaign race has ratcheted up the heat on Obama so strongly, said Kenneth Long, a political science professor at Saint Joseph College, in West Hartford, Conn.
“We have long a history of negative campaigning; this hardly comes close to the most negative,” Long said. “Voters say that they don’t like negative campaigns, and they don’t. But that said, we know that negative campaign ads are the most effective. … if you just run campaign ads that are purely positive, it tends not to move any voters.”