Sunday, October 26, 2008

Why Must They Be So Negative?

Every election season, voters decry negative advertising, and campaigns continue to sling mud. The reality is, negative campaigning is nearly as old as the Republic, and rightly or wrongly, it serves an important function in our electoral discourse.

A strategic campaign makes sure that its opponent defines itself and its opponent first. They want to set the tone of the campaign and (positively) control their image to the fullest extent possible. And they want the opponent to have to be on the defensive for the entire campaign if at all possible. Negative campaigning (when done well) allows candidates to emphasize their strengths and their opponent’s weaknesses.

It is important to keep in mind that negative campaigning is broad term which encompasses both fair and unfair critiques of candidates. Candidates have a right, even a responsibility, to contrast their strengths and weaknesses with their opponents. If one candidate takes position A on a particular policy, while his or her opponent takes position -A on the same issue, voters should know the difference and what the implications of those differences are, and sometimes, those differences must be portrayed starkly if not harshly in order for people to understand.

Voters no doubt get the most queasy when the attack moves from the substantive to the personal. One can easily defend the idea that you shouldn’t spread false rumors about your opponent or dig up dirt about what they did in fifth grade (though such things do happen in campaigns). However, pointing out some character flaws that might be relevant to the question of a candidate’s ability to govern are arguably fair game. The Bush campaign did this humorously in 2004 with their windsurfing ad. Using John Kerry’s voting record (fairly or unfairly), they were able to successfully paint Kerry as being indecisive or unprincipled. In doing so, the campaign was able to undermine voter perceptions of Kerry’s fitness to be an effective leader.

There is some debate about the impact of negative campaigning on the electorate. Some, like Stephen Ansolabehere and Shanto Iyengar, argue that negative campaigning can mobilize strong partisans while compelling less partisan voters to sit out elections. Other political scientists dispute this claim, citing survey data that suggests that those who remember or complain about negative advertising still reporting voting at the same if not higher levels than those who were unfazed by negative ads.

This year’s election will no doubt be remembered for the negative ads (See examples below). While both campaigns have traded barbs, a lot of media attention has gone to the high proportion of negative Republican ads. These ads appear to have been less than effective this year, though. Why is that the case? There could be a couple of factors. For starters, the Republicans do not appear to have found an attack that resonates broadly across enough of the population for it to make a difference in voter preferences. Some voters can be riled up by William Ayres or Tony Rezko, but most are not moved, especially given the current financial crisis. In light of this crisis, the personal attacks may ring hollow.

Should Barack Obama win this election, someone will say that negative campaigning is dead because it did not work (for John McCain) in this election. That is likely very premature. Campaign operatives have been engaging in negative campaigning every since Thomas Jefferson and John Adams went at each other in 1800. Candidates have continued doing it for more than 200 years because they think it works. It is very unlikely that one election will put the final nail in the coffin of negative advertising.

For Further Reading:

Ansolabehere, Stephen, and Shanto Iyengar. Going Negative. New York, NY: The Free P, 1995.

Wattenberg, Martin, and Craig L. Brians. "Negative Campaign Advertising: Demobilizer
or Mobilizer?" American Political Science Review (1999): 891-99.

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