Negative campaigning is not new. Campaigns will say they don't 'like' it publicly, but privately they'll tell you attacking the opposition works. The trick is often knowing when to "go negative."
In the U.S. Senate race in Illinois, the campaigns started to go negative in January and have stayed there.
Even before either Democrat Alexi Giannoulias or Republican Mark Kirk won their respective primaries, there was some jousting. Kirk referred to the "union muscle" likely to propel Giannoulias to the nomination, and Giannoulias often found time to call Kirk a "DC insider".
Then, shortly after the February primaries, the flood of mud began.
The Giannoulias' family bank collapsed and was seized by the FDIC. Broadway Bank was the platform Giannoulias used to go from senior bank manager to fundraiser for Barack Obama's 2004 Senate campaign to winning a statewide election in his first race to become Illinois State Treasurer at the tender age of 30.
Couple the demise of a once-profitable bank with published reports of large loans to organized crime figures, and the term "mob banker" was born. By April, Kirk and his surrogates were calling Giannoulias "mob banker" regularly.
"(The Kirk campaign) went negative so early, we had no choice," says Kathleen Strand, spokeswoman for Giannoulias.
So, the Giannoulias campaign dug deep into Kirk's background and found inconsistencies in Kirk's accounts of a childhood boating accident, brief teaching career and most damaging, his military career. Once news organizations got a hold of these accounts (thanks in no small part to the urging of the Giannoulias campaign that reporters should go with these stories), Kirk was pelted with a series of embarrassing stories.
It was negative campaigning gold. Kirk was now called a "liar" by the Giannoulias campaign at every turn.
And the thing about negative campaign is that once it's "switched on", it usually stays "on." Now, the negative narratives of "mob banker" and "liar" are almost instinctive to the candidates. The attack lines blurt out even when they're talking about other issues.
Last week Kirk was asked about Giannoulias' insistence that Republicans want to go back to the fiscal policies of President George W. Bush. Kirk's response?
"I think I'd like to take Illinois back to its Governor Edgar and Senator Dirksen days, when we were moderates, when we were fiscal conservatives, when we didn't lend money to mobsters."
At a recent event, Giannoulias talked about Kirk's difficulties getting his stories straight...even when the Democratic candidate insists he not talking about that.
"I'm not gonna spend a lot of time talking about the fact that he has lied about his military career. I'm going to talk about the fact that he lied about a phantom teaching career. I'm not gonna talk about the fact that he lied about a drowning incident because I don't want to waste your time."
The results of this kind of campaigning? A dead-heat.
Last week, Public Policy Polling (viewed as a Democratic leaning firm) had Giannoulias leading the race at 37 percent with Kirk at 35 percent. Factor in the margin of error and mathematically, it's a statistical tie. Undecided are at 19 percent, so it's VERY safe to say that a lot of likely voters have not made up their minds yet on this race. So what do they think of the candidates? Not much.
PPP's news release on its poll says, "Both candidates continue to be very unpopular." Giannoulias' favorability is 26/42 and Kirk's is 26/34. Independents have a negative opinion of both of them."
About the campaign's overall negative tone, Kirk reminded reporters, "This ain't beanbag."
No. It certainly isn't.