In defense of negative campaigning

Note: This editorial was originally written back in 2008. With the Presidential campaign in full gear, and with local and state elections heating up, negative campaigning needs to be defended again.

We hear it every election year. People complain about negative campaigning, attack ads, and the “uncivil” tone of the campaigns. Those complaints get the most attention in a Presidential election year, but there are complaints about candidates going negative in city, county and state elections as well. And yet, every single election season, there are more negative ads from both parties, and within party primaries. Why? Because they work.

It seems that many people casually observing politics think that “negative” and “uncivil” are the same thing. That is not the case. While it is true that nasty personal attacks are common, there are also many valuable, issue-oriented negative ads that inform the voters and enhance the debate. I would argue that in many cases, a candidate for elective office has a responsibility to the voters to go negative at some point in the campaign, especially in a policy-making office from Congress down to county commissioner.

Suppose Candidate A believes Candidate B’s tax policy will slow economic growth and/or is unfair to a significant portion of citizens, and B’s tax policy is getting no (or favorable) coverage in the media. A should then run an advertisement and communicate with voters about why B’s tax policy will not only fail to solve the problems it proposes to fix, but will actually make things worse. B then has an opportunity to respond to the A’s arguments in his own ad, perhaps criticizing A’s tax plan. Voters then come away able to make a more educated choice.

Obviously, the above is a purely hypothetical example you’re likely to hear in a political science class instead of what often happens in the real world. But the fact of the matter is that there are good negative ads that serve a useful purpose in every election season. Those who complain that a campaign is “too negative” lump the good negative ads in with the bad negative ads. It is a “pox on both houses” argument that may make someone feel above the fray, but provides little in the way of content.

Clearly, positive campaigning is needed too. Candidates and political parties need to give voters a reason to vote for them in addition to voting against the other candidate. The 1994 Contract with America provides a good template for how to do that. The Republicans certainly attacked the Democrats for supporting President Clinton’s policies, but they also outlined a positive agenda and gave people something to vote for. Republicans should have learned in 2006 that telling voters, especially your base, that the other side is worse simply is not good enough. You have to provide a reason for people to vote for you. Unfortunately, I do not think that lesson has been learned.

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