Not at all, compared to labels like "jackass" and "hermaphroditical" tossed around during presidential elections back in the day.
"2008 was downright mild," compared to some of the tactics employed in the past, said Gil Troy, professor of U.S. History at McGill University in Montreal.
Mudslinging is certainly not a new approach in politics, historians agree. Opposing candidates have been tearing each other down since 1789, when George Washington was the first, and last, president to win an election by a unanimous electoral decision.
Our Forefathers could be just as cutthroat
There's just no avoiding the more malevolent side of politics during presidential elections in the United States.
"Elections have frequently been intense dust ups — American politics is rough and tumble," said Troy.
This year's election wasn't free of controversy, but both Democrats and Republicans were tame in their approach, said Troy, who noted that race played a part in keeping things relatively high-brow.
"John McCain to his credit refused to raise the Jeremiah Wright issue, because he feared making racial waves. Barack Obama very cleverly deemed every attack against him, no matter how mild, a smear, and this helped put the Republicans on the defensive and raise the bar," Troy said.
While Obama and McCain's attacks tended to be ideological in nature, past presidential candidates have barely hid their personal disdain for each other.
Slander became the campaign precedent as early as 1800, when incumbent president John Adams ran against his vice-president Thomas Jefferson. The duo, who'd worked together on claiming independence for America in 1776, were now bitter rivals and traded slurs that would put today's genteel candidates to shame.
Jefferson's side started by calling Adams a "hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman." Adams supporters responded by labeling Jefferson "a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father."
And the vitriol has continued unabated:
•In 1828 Andrew Jackson's wife — who had, shockingly for the time, been divorced — was called all sorts of lewd names by his opponents (they also called Jackson a jackass). In retaliation, Jackson claimed that incumbent John Quincy Adams had once tried to offer his maid as a concubine to Russian Czar Alexander I.
•1964 pitted sitting president Lyndon Johnson against Republican Barry Goldwater and is considered one of the nastiest of the last century. Johnson systematically destroyed Goldwater's character with the help of an "after-hours" smear team. It worked — Johnson won one of the most lopsided elections in U.S. history.
•In 2004, the "Swiftboat" smears against John Kerry, which questioned Kerry's military service record during the Vietnam War, were much dirtier than anything that happened in 2008, Troy said.
The Fact is that the Golden Age of politics never existed
The forefathers may have been just as sneaky as today's campaign managers, Troy said, but that doesn't prevent people from believing that modern politicians are more cutthroat. The penchant to view the most recent election as the nastiest, hardest-fought contest is a natural one, historians say.
"Americans are always searching for the golden age in the past, which I believe never existed," said Troy.
There is also a reason why politicians keep up the devilish deeds time after time. People have a tendency to forgive and forget even the worst offenders by the time the next election roll around, Troy said.
"[During] each campaign we idealize the previous ones and express deep disappointment with the [candidates] we have to choose from and the methods they use," he said, "not realizing that the reason why they use those methods is because the harsh tactics work on us!"
Few campaigns in the modern era have been completely free of dirty politics, which generally means the use of slander, libel, forgery, or other potentially criminal acts to embarrass a political rival. Since both candidates may engage in this type of behavior during a election year, the losing candidate rarely pursues legal action after the election is over. While voters may be offended by the use of dirty politics, political campaigns are notoriously outcome-oriented, suggesting that the candidate should use any and all means necessary to guarantee a win.
One legendary but unconfirmed example of dirty politics is said to have occurred during a heated campaign between Claude Pepper and George Mathers in the 1950s. Mathers is often credited with delivering a speech describing Pepper's sister as a "well-known thespian." Pepper's brother was a "practicing homo sapiens." Pepper himself reportedly "masticated daily" or "openly matriculated at college." Although none of these allegations were in the least bit immoral or illegal, Mathers counted on voter ignorance to sway the voters away from a questionable candidate like Claude Pepper
While that example of dirty politics may be apocryphal, there are other examples which are all too real. In 1972, an early frontrunner for the Democratic presidential race named Edmund Muskie became a victim of dirty politics. Political enemies leaked a letter to the press which allegedly contained quotes from Muskie condemning French-Canadians. This letter followed allegations of Muskie's wife being an active alcoholic. Muskie's emotional defense of his wife made him appear weak and vulnerable, two qualities not often viewed. as presidential. The "Canuck Letter" also turned out to be a complete forgery.
Dirty politics can range from invasive investigations into an opponent's personal life to complete IRS audits ordered by an incumbent president. President Richard Nixon is said to have maintained an entire staff of experts in this type of political maneuvering, including Donald Segretti and a young Republican named Karl Rove. Political enemies of the president were routinely audited for years, even television hosts such as Dick Cavett. Cavett had criticized one of Nixon's policies on-air, in front of a guest who Cavett correctly assumed worked for the Nixon White House.
Manipulative politics have played a role in American elections since the time of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson himself is said to have used pamphlets filled with incriminating or embarrassing information about his political opponents. Opponents of presidential candidate James Garfield in 1880 published a letter, supposedly written by Garfield himself, recommending that companies use cheap labor whenever possible, including Chinese immigrants. Garfield managed to prove the letter was a forgery before it could permanently damage his campaign.
Dirty politics can occur at any level of public service. Local political candidates often use financial records to embarrass an opponent. Family members and known political associates may also become fair game. A candidate's mental stability may be challenged, especially if he or she offers up an emotional or overheated response to political tactics. A negative ad campaign is not always the same as questionable politics, provided the charges in those ads are true and confirmable. Dirty politics often occur away from the scrutiny of the press, so many examples rarely come to light until years after the campaigns have ended.
Despite the high levels of rhetoric, political scientists don’t necessarily agree that this election is any more negative than those in the past.
Brian Gaines, a political scientist at the University of Illinois Institute for Government and Public Affairs, said a look in history shows mudslinging is nothing new.
The 1828 race between Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams was filled with personal attacks, including accusations that Jackson’s mother was a prostitute and that Adams was a pimp.
The 1864 race between Abraham Lincoln and General George B. McClellan was dominated by wild caricatures that included newspaper cartoonists depicting Lincoln as a baboon.
"It is just not true that politics are dirtier or nastier than it ever was," Gaines said.
Kerwin Swint, a political scientist at Kennesaw State University in Georgia, told CNN in August he believes the presidential race will get progressively nastier as November approaches.
But, Swint, author of "Mudslingers: The 25 Dirtiest Political Campaigns of All Time," also said negative campaigns are not new.
In particular, he pointed to the Lyndon Johnson-Barry Goldwater matchup in 1964 that kicked off the television age of negative campaigning with what became known as the "Daisy" ad.
The advertisement, actually called "Peace, Little Girl," shows a girl pulling petals from a flower. A male announcer then begins counting down from 10. At zero, the image of the girl is replaced by the mushroom cloud of a nuclear blast, suggesting that Goldwater’s election could lead to nuclear war.
"That’s the one that set the modern standard," Swint said.
In a study titled "Winning, but losing: How negative campaigns shrink electorate, manipulate news media," political scientists Stephen Ansolabehere and Shanto Iyengar found that negative advertising does turn people away from voting.
Morrison agrees. "You wind up with less voter involvement and lower turnout," he said.
State Rep. Adam Brown, R-Decatur, is among those candidates who signed the fair elections pledge.
But that’s not to say he wasn’t in the middle of a brawl in 2010, when he unseated former state Rep. Bob Flider, D-Mount Zion, in a race filled with negative ads.
Brown, however, says there is a difference between negative ads and false ads.
"In one situation, you have pure blasphemy. In another you have a factual basis for going after your opponent," Brown said.
Gaines said negative ads can play a role in campaign strategy.
"There are people who like them. They are like red meat to them, the diehard partisans. They don’t shy away from the mud," Gaines said. "The people who don’t like them are mostly independents; those who are casually interested in politics."
"They do depress turnout a little bit. They mainly push independents away from the polls," Gaines said. "Sometimes both campaigns think that’s in their interest. Sometimes one campaign thinks the other is going to do well with independents, so they are happy to have a lot of mud flying around."
So much for what has transpired in the past. Let’s move into the present day next time.