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On Negative Campaigning

July 27, 2010

Having written about negative campaigns in the last couple of days, I’d like to close the topic with a few general observations. I wouldn’t be the political scientist I am if I didn’t.

Why do candidates do it? The sad fact is, it works.  The American public has said for a long time that they don’t like it. I’m sure your mother told you that if you had nothing good to say about someone, don’t say anything at all.  Yet as one long-term activist told me, people take the negativity into consideration when they vote: perhaps a sort of “where there’s smoke there’s fire” attitude. It raises doubts in the minds of the voters. In geekdom, we call that FUD: fear, uncertainty and doubt and Microsoft marketing was known for it. People have a low opinion of politicians anyway–they’re ready to believe anything.

Further, people who are only peripherally engaged tend to treat both sides as if they’re doing the same thing–to be “fair.” My son was being picked on by a bully on the school bus. One day he’d had enough and hauled off and hit him. Guess what? They both went to the vice-principal’s office and both got punished. So the person slinging the mud ironically makes the person being trashed look bad too. A sorry mess indeed.

All of this supposes that the mud-slinging isn’t really fair, that it is something made up, taken out of context or exaggerated. As we’ve seen with political discourse generally, this is pretty common among lawyers trained to score debating points and the majority of our politicians are lawyers. But what if it is true? What then? Is that negative?

Truth is always a defense. During the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama famously said he wouldn’t be “swift-boated.” What he meant by that was you weren’t allowed to judge him by the company he kept. Before 2008 that was called being railroaded, being condemned of guilt by association. But what does the term “swift-boated” really mean? John Kerry had misrepresented his military record and to bring that out was not negative campaigning but rather bringing the truth to light. In Obama’s case, he was able to twist the notion of negativity to make that rather than truth the central issue. We’re all paying for that sleight of hand now.

Generally negative campaigns work because voters allow them to. Only when people stop supporting candidates who engage in this behavior will they stop it. 2010 may be that time.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. July 27, 2010 3:14 pm

    2010 could be the year it’s rejected. There are many more values voters in 2010 who view it as smoke for a poor message. Walking precincts over the last several weeks, I have been told by many that they hate the ads being run. We’ll see if they hate them enough not to not pull the lever for those campaigns that have made half truth and exaggerated attacks their primary focus. If so, those responsible for taking those campaigns in that direct could find their own reputations tarnished beyond repair.

    We have seen more than one person this election season go from activist to mud slinging operative or from respected movement member to shrill over the top agitator.

    I think people will remember.

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