Negative Campaign Ads Work

“Negative campaigning,” also known as “mudslinging”, attempts to win an advantage by referring to negative aspects of an opponent, or the opponent’s policy, rather than emphasizing one’s own positive attributes or preferred policies.

Many say that political campaigning is more negative and unethical than ever. Whether this is true is the subject of debate. Politicians have long thrown mud at each other. In fact, the history of negative campaigning reaches back to the earliest days of this nation. Then as today, rumor and gossip fed a public hungry for scandal.

For example, during the Presidential campaign of 1800, charges were made by Federalists in support of John Adams that Thomas Jefferson was trying to turn the country over to the French and that Jefferson was an atheist. In response, Democratic-Republicans charged that Adams was trying to return the country to the British.

It is hard to imagine anything more negative, or in the mode of slinging mud, considering both strong allies in the fight for independence in the American Revolutionary movement and are considered Founding Fathers of the United States.

One thing is certain; we have new ways to promulgate mudslinging through new media. We reach more people than ever before, spending vast sums of money.

The Effects of Negative Campaigning
Some studies suggest that negative campaign ads are more easily remembered, having a greater influence on voters’ attitudes and decisions; other research indicates the opposite. Some research suggests that candidates using negative ads are more likely to win; other research suggests the opposite.

There are also conflicting conclusions about how negative advertising affects voter turnout–some research concludes that negative campaigning depresses turnout, other findings suggest that negative campaigning enhances voter turnout.

The result is that candidates now run two campaigns: one highlighting their own virtues, and another villainizing their opponent.

Voters overwhelmingly state a dislike for negative campaigning. According to a recent bipartisan survey commission by the Project on Campaign Conduct, voters are not overjoyed with candidates and their tactics.

Of those surveyed:
• 59% believe that all or most candidates deliberately twist the truth.
• 39% believe that all or most candidates deliberately lie to voters.
• 43% believe that most or all candidates deliberately make unfair attacks on opponents.
• 67% say they can trust the government only some of the time or never.
• 87% are concerned about the level of personal attacks in today’s campaigns.

Even though voters say they do not like negative ads, they are swayed by their messages. Voters may not even know that they are influenced by these ads, as sometimes, the message affects the voters on a subliminal level.

One consistency in modern elections is that politicians revert to negative ads when they are trailing in the polls. The further behind they fall, the more they invest in attacking their opponent with negative ads. On the other hand, a politician with a strong lead can stay above the fray and avoid reverting to negative ads; this stance can look to the populace like a sign of integrity. However, if staying above the fray is not working, the candidate will start their own negative campaign in retaliation.

Liken it to a championship boxing match. It is the final round and your corner is telling you that you are behind on points; your only hope is to score a knockout. You go out with everything you have hoping to get lucky and land a knockout punch. Meanwhile, your opponent only has to avoid getting knocked out to win the match.

Most commonly, the challenger initiates the negative ads, since they are typically at a disadvantage to an incumbent’s name recognition and campaign chest. It is easier for a challenger to sully the name of the incumbent than to gain recognition and credibility on their own.

Techniques of Negative Campaigning
Today, the most common and effective technique is running advertisements on an opponent’s personality, record, opinion, or anything else.

One famous such ad was the “Daisy Girl” campaign by Lyndon Johnson in 1964. The ad implied that voting for Republican Barry Goldwater could lead to nuclear war. However, making such a bold attack on your opponent can backfire if the public feels the attack is overstated, unfair, or lacks merit.

More common negative campaign techniques include: painting your opponent as soft on crime, dishonest, or corrupt. Another technique is to show your opponent as inconsistent in their position – flip-flopping on the issues.

Dirty tricks are also used in negative political campaigns. A common example – a campaign may leak damaging information on their opponent to the media, rather than state the charges directly against the opponent. This protects the candidate from any potential backlash for releasing the information.

A more sinister trick is to feed your opponent with false information; if the opponent falls for the trick and uses the information, it will backfire once proven false, damaging both your opponent’s credibility and integrity. This may explain why you do not hear a candidate respond to a provocative news story; it is because they suspect it is bait for a trap.

A new tactic is the use of “push polls;” these are attacks in the form of telephone polls. The caller will ask a hypothetical question such as: “How would you react if Candidate X was revealed to be planning to invade Pakistan?” The call is designed to give the impression that Candidate X is actually planning to invade Pakistan.

Thanks in large part to negative advertising, many Americans take the approach to elections as voting for the “lesser-of-two-evils.” In effect, we are disillusioned with the candidates before they are even elected. There is already enough of this problem in politics without negative campaign advertising.

After obtaining a degree in political science, I embarked on a career in insurance and government. For the last 21 years, I have worked for local government and government associations. I have written articles, as well as manuals, assisting local government in effectively managing their activities and exposures. I have also provided training in these areas, been a frequent speaker at educational seminars, and acted as President of an association of governmental employees.

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