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The Benefits of Negative Political Campaigns

HECTOR MATA/AFP/Getty Images

What would we do without elections? Every couple of years, two sides square off, and try to convince voters that the other guy is so much worse. By doing that they don’t have to spend any time telling voters what they will do if elected. All the votes are in — not only does negative campaigning work — it works very well.

Will New Money Increase Negativity?

With the upholding of Citizens United by the US Supreme Court there will be new monies injected into this years campaign. Will it make any difference? Only time will tell. I’m wondering if Citizens United might create a fear in voters that might increase individual contributions. It’s going to be an interesting 100 days.

If you polled a cross section of Americans, and asked them their opinion on negative campaigns, almost all would profess a strong distaste for negative ads. In most cases you would hear a resounding, “We want candidates to campaign on the issues.” Really, how incredibly boring would that be?

Negative campaigns are certainly nothing new. As long as there have been opposing politicians there has been seasonal “mudslinging.”

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson, founding father, author of the Declaration of Independence, must have been a greatly popular man when he ran for the presidency. But even Jefferson wasn’t all that popular in some quarters. Local ministers accused him of being an “infidel” and an “unbeliever.” So much for the endorsement of the religious right.

He was called a drunken anarchist among other things. The president of Yale University professed that if Jefferson was elected, “we may see our wives and daughters the victims of legal prostitution.” The Hartford Courant wrote that his election would mean, “… murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will openly be taught and practiced.” Apparently there was some media bias even in those days. Can you imagine any of today’s journalists printing something like that? Oh, I guess we can.

John Kerry

Thanks to the McCain-Feingold Campaign Reform Act John Kerry’s war record was trashed by the “Swift Boat” movement.

Gary Hart

In the 1988 presidential campaign, frontrunner Gary Hart dared the press to follow him around if they thought he was doing anything wrong. The did — and he was caught having an affair with Donna Rice aboard the now famous boat — “Monkey Business.”

Bush was labeled a draft dodger, Clinton a womanizer, Nixon a crook, and Regan was senile. As we can see, things have changed little in the past 200 plus years. Dirt sells and gets votes.

Some Final Thoughts

I titled this post, “The Benefits of Negative Advertising.” So what are the benefits? The reason negative ads work is a double-edged sword. If you beat up on my candidate that just might be the shove I need to get me to the polls to vote for him or her.

On the other hand, if I’m an independent, I might buy the validity of the negative ad and change my opinion of my candidate and switch to the other party. Either way, getting the most motivated and emotional folks into that voting booth, is the main idea. So from that standpoint they are beneficial and almost a necessity.

Not every negative ad works. There is a big difference between negative and mean spirited. Even the most enthusiastic supporters, poorly receive personal attacks, or family attacks. So there is a fine line to be walked when using negativity correctly against an opponent.

It would be nice if candidates could stick strictly to the issues, and to articulate their plans for dealing with them. But it’s highly unlikely that you’ll be seeing anything resembling civility in this year’s election. In fact, this year’s election is predicted to be the dirtiest in recent memory. But I guess it’s a nice dream.

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