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Election 2008

All's Fair in Campaigning and Politics

John Moe

Angela Kim

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Rod Shealy, Sr.
(Courtesy Rod Shealy, Sr.)
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John Moe: The perception of South Carolina politics is that there's just a lot of mud being thrown around. Why does there seem to be so much mud in South Carolina politics?

Rod Shealy: Well, actually we here in South Carolina are very civil and very friendly. I don't think it speaks to our state as much as it speaks to the importance of this particular primary in the sequence. You know they've turned the corner from Iowa to New Hampshire. It's now time to get serious. This becomes a do or die state. You either win or go home in many instances.

Candidates in the national campaigns are essentially willing to do whatever it takes and they've got to do whatever it takes, which means no holds barred, go for it. Now I will say that we here in South Carolina, the political community -- my fellow consultants and I -- all know how to play the game of negative politics. We all studied or worked with Lee Atwater.

Fill us in on who Lee Atwater was.

During the 1970s and 1980s, Lee Atwater was a young South Carolinian who rose to the pinnacle of political power. He managed the first George Bush's campaign for president and then became the chairman of the RNC. He was stricken with a brain tumor and we lost him in the early 1990s, but he proved himself to be a cut above virtually any other political person. He was a master strategist and certainly understood how to run a negative campaign. He is credited in the '88 Bush campaign with the Willie Horton ad, which was one of the masterstrokes of negative political campaigns.

Now a big part of South Carolina dirty politics -- the kind of really negative stuff -- seems to be anonymous: anonymous mailings, anonymous push-polling. Why is that? What's the deal with anonymity in this context?

Well, the objective of any negative tactic is to damage your opponent, but what a consultant or a candidate would try to do is damage your opponent without any backlash. Certainly, the voters will tell you they do not like negative politics and they do not like negative politics -- it works but they generally don't like it. However, they don't usually recognize it as negative politics so the candidates tend to get away with it. Largely because the attacks tend to be anonymous or in some cases third person.

You've been in this game for a long time, Rod. What are some of the all time greatest negative political maneuvers in South Carolina that you've seen?

You know, I think that 2000 campaign against McCain was probably one of the best examples and it's certainly the best known. And it was not a specific tactic. There was just an unrelenting assault against McCain on all fronts. Coming from supporters of Bush and certainly a campaign generally has to take responsibility for their entire campaign which is the collective of everybody who supports in working for that similar cause.

In 2000, during the lead up to the South Carolina primary, McCain just about had enough. Then McCain launched an attack ad against Bush. However, McCain made a decision after one day to pull that ad and stop it, but the damage had been done. He actually pulled the ad and issued a sort of apology that he had let an attack ad air, but he regretted it. That's all the Bush campaign needed to go on the attack against McCain for running a negative campaign. On election day in 2000, most South Carolina voters had in their mind that McCain had run a negative campaign against Bush. History certainly has recorded otherwise.

What motivates you in your work? What drives you?

Less and less am I motivated by any specific political philosophy. Frankly, this system I believe was set up to be balanced. I appreciate the balance and somehow the balance works itself out. Am I totally happy with the system? No, I'm not. But frankly if I play the small part of helping good people get elected, regardless which side of the fence they're on, I think I've accomplished something.

Rod Shealy, thank you so much for being with us.

Well, appreciate the opportunity to talk with you.

More stories from our Election 2008 series


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