A version of this story was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
Oct. 20, 2004
When the Kerry campaign announced this week that their candidate would be appearing in Las Cruces, the state Bush campaign responded with an e-mail statement from spokesman Danny Diaz that began, "John Kerry's attempt to run from his liberal record is taking him to Las Cruces this weekend."
The prominent use of the word "liberal" is consistent with a tried-and-true Republican strategy. In the final debate between President Bush and Kerry last week, Bush repeatedly used the "L-word" to hammer Kerry.
And of course the word "liberal" is used quite liberally in Republican political commercials, which have been bombarding New Mexico and other swing states this year. (The recently released report of the Nielsen Monitor-Plus and The University of Wisconsin Advertising Project shows Albuquerque to be the number two market in the United States for campaign ads, second only to Miami, Fla. during the period of September 24 - October 7.)
References such as "John Kerry and the liberals in Congress" are aired constantly here in an attempt to persuade voters to reject Kerry.
Syndicated columnist Robert Sheer recently wrote a piece that said, "I like liberals. They gave us the five-day workweek; ended child labor; invented unemployment insurance, Social Security and Medicare; and led us, despite fierce opposition from 'America First' pseudo-patriots on the political right, to victory over fascism in World War II. Liberals also ended racial segregation and gave women the vote."
However, a new poll for The New Mexican and KOB-TV illustrate why Kerry and other Democrats don't try to reclaim the word liberal as something positive. The poll shows that the "liberal" label hurts far more than it helps.
Mason-Dixon Polling and Research of Washington, D.C. asked 625 likely voters statewide last week, "If a candidate describes themselves as "liberal", does that make you more likely to vote for them, less likely to vote for them, or do such labels have no real effect on your vote?"
Twenty eight percent said they would be less likely to vote for a self-described liberal. Only seven percent said they would be more likely to vote for an admitted liberal. Of the remaining voters, 62 percent said there would be no effect, while 3 percent said they were unsure.
The results were predictable among supporters of Bush and Kerry. Of the Bush supporters, 53 percent said the liberal label would make them less likely to vote for a candidate while none said it would make them more likely. Of the Kerry supporters, 17 percent said they would be more likely to vote for a candidate calling himself "liberal," while only one percent said less likely."
Undecided voters - who are the target audience for all the campaign ads - tend not to like the description of liberal. None said they'd be more likely to vote for a self-described liberal, while 22 percent said it would make them less likely to vote for such a candidate.
Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, said in a telephone interview Tuesday that "liberal" in the past 35 years or so, has become a "radioactive" word.
"I believe it's a reaction to the excesses of the '60s," Sabato said. "It was the era of riots, assassinations, Vietnam, overspending. It's a reaction against the attitude that if we throw enough money at a problem we'll solve it."
Sabato said the word has been poison since about 1968.
New Mexico pollster Brian Sanderoff, in an interview Tuesday, said that 1968 might be the last time any presidential used the word in a positive way.
Sanderoff, who operates Research and Polling Inc. of Albuquerque, said that Hubert Humphrey, running for president that year against Richard Nixon, had a commercial that had a man-in-the-street saying Humphrey was "a good liberal man."
Sanderoff said when Republicans repeatedly use the word "liberal" to tarnish an opponent, they are playing directly to conservative-to-moderate Democrats and independents.
"New Mexico has 32 percent Republicans and 51 percent Democrats," he said. To win, Republican candidates must appeal to "Anglo moderate to conservative Democrats. That's who really decides elections in this state."
Albuquerque consultant Doug Turner - who has worked for several Republican campaigns including that of former Gov. Gary Johnson - said Tuesday that Republican candidates label their opponents as "liberals" to appeal to a more conservative base.
"Republicans have spent a lot of energy drawing negative associations to that word," Turner said. "People have to put their views and perspectives into 30-second spots and drive it over again and again and again."
Turner is not currently working for any campaigns. His business now concentrates on corporate public relations.
Turner, Sanderoff and Sabato agreed that Democrats haven't been successful at making "conservative" a charged word.
"Many Hispanics, who always vote Democrat describe themselves as 'conservative,' Sanderoff said. "And they are on many social issues."
However some Democrat ads use the description "right-wing" to describe their conservative opponents. " 'Right-wing' means 'extreme,' out of the mainstream," Sabato said.
"Democrats will point out that their Republican opponents 'always vote with the Republican leadership,' "
Sanderoff said. "That's an appeal to those conservative-to-moderate Democrats. It's telling them, 'You don't want someone who votes with the Republican leadership all the time.' "