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Before Twitter and Trump, candidates' families have been targets

Social media might be broadening the audience of nasty attacks, but a look at history suggests they're not the cause.

25 Feb 2016, Houston, Texas, USA --- February 25, 2016 - Houston, Texas, U.S - Republican candidates MARCO RUBIO (L), DONALD TRUMP (C) and TED CRUZ participate in the CNN Republican Presidential Debate on the campus of the University of Houston. (Credit Image: © Scott W. Coleman via ZUMA Wire) --- Image by © Scott Coleman/ZUMA Press/Corbis
Scott Coleman,

The Twitter war between Donald Trump and Ted Cruz feels like a new low in American democracy. It's not.

Earlier this week, the two Republican candidates swapped angry tweets after a political action committee supporting Cruz ran an ad showing Trump's wife posing nude.

On Tuesday, the brash billionaire tweeted the following:

That was quickly followed by this Tweet from the Bible-thumpin' Texas senator, who effectively blamed Make America Awesome, an anti-Trump super PAC:

The immediacy and reach of Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms amplify the viciousness of the current campaign, which is already one of the ugliest in memory. With nothing out of bounds -- former candidate Marco Rubio questioned Trump's manhood during a February campaign speech -- the campaign has seemed like a race to the bottom. But it's by no means the most vicious ever waged.

"We can think of lots of family members of presidential candidates being attacked," says Barbara Perry, senior fellow and associate professor at the University of Virginia's Miller Center's Presidential Oral History Program.

She added many of the slams originated in the media.

Here are just a few:

1828: Andrew Jackson successfully campaigned against John Quincy Adams after losing to him four years earlier. But Adams & Co. didn't go down without fighting dirty.

Adams supporters served some particularly nasty insults toward two women in Jackson's life. They called Jackson's mother "a common prostitute" brought to the country by British soldiers.

Jackson's wife, Rachel, got even worse treatment. Her divorce likely hadn't been completed by the time she married Jackson years earlier, so Adams operatives hurled insults at her -- think "Jezebel" and "adulteress"-- that echoed across the young country's newspapers.

She died several days before Jackson's victory. He blamed her death on his opponents' campaign tactics.

1976: Billy Carter, a gas station owner and farmer, was lampooned for his fondness of beer during his brother Jimmy's successful run for president. Billy, who became something of a national joke during the campaign, may have had the last laugh. He later promoted an eponymous beer that leveraged his notoriety.

2000: In February 2000, John McCain's wife, Cindy, was the target of a smear campaign that painted her as an opioid addict. Operatives for rival George W. Bush invented a rumor that McCain's daughter, who had been adopted in Bangladesh, was his illegitimate child. The combination had legs and played a role in McCain's defeat in South Carolina, a key state.

Of course, the Internet-fueled 2016 campaign still has plenty of time to get more mean-spirited. Just Wednesday, Trump pushed the boundaries again, tweeting an unflattering photo of Heidi Cruz juxtaposed with one of his wife, a former model.

"A picture is worth a thousand words."

Updated at 9 p.m. PT to correct where Rubio questioned Trump's manhood. It was during a campaign speech in February,