Whether you’re a candidate or a voter, it can seem like every campaign you experience is a negative one. You need only watch any debate or view a political ad to see that politicians often speak less about why someone should vote for them and more about why their opponent is bad.
Negative campaigns and attack ads have become an unfortunate and prevalent aspect of modern politics. While political discourse should be a platform for meaningful debate and the exchange of ideas, it often devolves into a toxic environment where candidates engage in mudslinging and character assassination.
Our previous president, Donald Trump, used these tactics to such great advantage that names like “Crooked Hillary,” “Sleepy Joe,” and “Lyin’ Ted Cruz” have become rallying cries during his almost daily rallies and media appearances.
However, such negative attacks and messaging have the potential to undermine the democratic process, diminish voter engagement, and deter quality candidates from participating.
Unfortunately, they can also be very effective. The idea of “Fake News” has become so dominant that even facts and events we see with our own eyes are disputed or characterized as false. The term is even being used by politicians in other countries.
Read on as we explore negative campaigning, learn about the various forms it takes and the damage it inflicts upon candidates and the political system, and, most importantly, provide 10 actionable strategies to combat these destructive practices when you encounter them during a political campaign.
Negative campaigns and attack ads are two closely related but distinct phenomena within the broader realm of political advertising and communication. They both rely on the dissemination of negative information about an opponent, but they differ in their scope and intensity.
The term “negative campaign” refers to the overall tone and strategy of a political campaign that focuses on undermining the reputation and credibility of an opponent. Negative campaigning involves using a variety of tactics that include spreading rumors, questioning an opponent's qualifications, and distorting their record or statements.
Attack ads, on the other hand, are a specific subset of negative campaigns. These are short, often sensationalized television ads or digital marketing activities that aim to discredit an opponent using striking visuals, dramatic music, and emotionally charged language. Attack ads tend to be highly effective in capturing the attention of the public.
Negative campaigns and attack ads can take several forms, each with its own unique characteristics. Understanding these forms and how they’re used is crucial in combating them effectively.
Character Assassination: One of the most common forms of negative campaigning is character assassination. This involves tarnishing an opponent's reputation by highlighting their personal flaws, past mistakes, or unflattering attributes. This can include allegations of moral wrongdoing, financial impropriety, or even issues unrelated to the campaign, like the opponent’s personal life or appearance.
Misleading Information: Negative campaigns often rely on disseminating misleading or false information about an opponent. This can be done through false statements, deceptive editing of interviews and images, or cherry-picking statements out of context to create a distorted narrative.
Fear Mongering: Fear is a powerful motivator, and negative campaigns sometimes exploit this by using fear mongering tactics. They paint opponents as dangerous or harmful to the public, often exaggerating or fabricating potential consequences of their policies or actions.
Divisive Messaging: Negative campaigns can fuel divisions within society by framing issues in polarized terms. They pit one group against another, promoting an "us versus them" mentality, which can lead to increased polarization and hostility among voters.
The above examples demonstrate the outward forms of negative campaigning. Much more commonplace and insidious are the whisper campaigns that seem to proliferate in the age of social media.
We may not be able to describe them, but we know ‘em when we see ‘em.
A whisper campaign is a form of covert communication in which rumors, false information, or unverified claims are spread discreetly and often anonymously. The objective is to damage a person's reputation, influence public opinion, or achieve specific political objectives.
The name "whisper campaign" alludes to the secretive and hushed nature of how these rumors or falsehoods are spread from one person to another through private conversations, emails, or social media rather than openly discussing them in public forums.
Whisper campaigns can be particularly damaging because they rely on misinformation and innuendo. This makes it difficult to trace their origins and refute false claims effectively.
Here are a few examples of whisper campaigns:
False Allegations: In a political election, rumors or false allegations about a candidate's personal life, financial dealings, or moral character may be spread covertly to undermine their chances of winning.
Dog-Whistle Politics: Politicians may engage in subtle, coded language to appeal to specific voter demographics without explicitly stating controversial or divisive positions. This type of whisper campaign exploits racial, cultural, or social fears without making overt statements. It often involves veiled messages designed to be understood by certain groups while appearing innocuous to others.
Advocacy Misinformation: Activist groups may engage in whisper campaigns to discredit opponents, whether it's in political debates, public health discussions, or environmental issues. Unverified or exaggerated information may be circulated to cast doubts about the credibility of those who hold opposing views.
Combating whisper campaigns involves a combination of fact-checking, transparent communication, and responsible information sharing. It’s important for candidates to establish a strong social media strategy to root out and neutralize such activities.
Negative campaigns and attack ads have profound consequences for candidates and the political system as a whole. They’re effective because human beings have an ingrained negativity bias that causes us to pay attention to and retain negative information more often than we do positive information.
But, the harm they do to our trust in politicians and the media that reports on them could have consequences that extend beyond the next election. Here are four good reasons why candidates should do whatever they can to combat negative campaigning and attacks.
Erosion of Trust: Negative campaigns erode public trust in politics and politicians. Voters become disillusioned, viewing the political landscape as a cesspool of mudslinging rather than a forum for addressing important issues.
Diminished Voter Turnout: Negative campaigns can discourage voters from participating in elections. When people perceive that all politicians engage in negative tactics, they can become disengaged from the political process and opt not to vote.
Deterioration of Civil Discourse: The toxic nature of negative campaigns discourages civil discourse and respectful debate. When candidates engage in personal attacks rather than addressing important issues and voter concerns, the quality of public discourse suffers.
Undermining Quality Candidates: High-quality candidates may be deterred from running for office due to the fear of being subjected to brutal negative campaigns. This can result in a shortage of competent individuals willing to serve in public office.
Despite the damage such campaigning does to our political system, or the extent to which voters claim to hate negative ads and campaigning, studies show that, year by year, negative campaigning has become more common and impactful.
However, negative campaigns and attack ads have the potential to undermine the democratic process, discourage voter participation, and diminish the quality of candidates who choose to run for office.
Negative campaigning has a long and dubious history in American politics, with numerous examples of both successful and thwarted efforts. Consider these past political campaigns and their outcomes:
Negative Campaign: The election of 1800 between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams is often considered one of the nastiest in American history. Both candidates and their supporters engaged in aggressive negative campaigning. Jefferson's camp accused Adams of being a monarchist, while Adams's supporters labeled Jefferson as an atheist and a revolutionary.
Outcome: The election resulted in a victory for Thomas Jefferson, but it highlighted the potential pitfalls of negative campaigning. This led to the adoption of the 12th Amendment, which revises the process for electing a president and vice-president.
Negative Campaign: The 1884 election featured a notorious smear campaign. Accusations of corruption were directed at both candidates, but the most damaging blow for James G. Blaine came from his alleged involvement in questionable railroad deals. His opponents chanted, "Blaine, Blaine, James G. Blaine, the continental liar from the state of Maine!" during the campaign.
Outcome: Grover Cleveland won the election, but it's debated to what extent the negative campaigning influenced the result.
Negative Campaign: In the 1964 election, President Lyndon B. Johnson's campaign aired the infamous "Daisy" ad, which suggested that a vote for Barry Goldwater could lead to nuclear war. The ad played on the fears of the Cold War era.
Outcome: Johnson won the election by a landslide, but the ad's effectiveness in influencing voters is still a subject of debate.
Negative Campaign: The 2004 election featured negative campaigning on both sides. Supporters of George W. Bush portrayed John Kerry as a flip-flopper and attacked his military service. Kerry's campaign questioned Bush's handling of the Iraq War and accused him of misleading the public about weapons of mass destruction.
Outcome: George W. Bush was reelected, and both negative campaigning tactics played a role in the election, making it a relatively close race. However, Bush’s attacks on Kerry’s record during the Vietnam war gave “Swiftboating” a place in the national lexicon as a term that’s synonymous with baseless negative political attacks.
Successful Thwarting of Negative Campaigning: In the 2008 election, the Obama campaign was able to thwart some negative campaigning tactics. Efforts to link Barack Obama to controversial figures like Reverend Jeremiah Wright and William Ayers were largely unsuccessful, as Obama's campaign focused on his message of hope and change.
Outcome: Barack Obama won the election, becoming the 44th President of the United States. His positive message and strong campaign organization played a significant role in overcoming negative tactics.
Negative Campaign: Although the race is just heating up as of this writing, the negative campaigning has already begun. One of the best examples of this is the notorious “Pudding Fingers” ad created by a pro-Trump PAC. The ad, which features actual footage of DeSantis messily eating pudding with his hands, depicts the Republican presidential hopeful as a greedy man who has his fingers in everything.
Outcome: The ad had the effect of sinking DeSantis’ already weak campaign, and he is routinely greeted with jeers of “Pudding Fingers” at campaign events.
These examples demonstrate that negative campaigning can sometimes be effective in shaping public opinion, but it also carries risks that include alienating voters and damaging the political process. Successful candidates learn to combine effective counter-messaging with a compelling positive message to overcome attacks.
By understanding the various forms of negative campaigning and their consequences, candidates can take proactive steps to combat these destructive practices. Ultimately, it's up to candidates and their campaigns to lead the way in transforming the nature of political campaigning for the better.
So, how does a candidate promote positivity in a political environment that’s become increasingly negative and toxic?
While it may seem challenging to combat negative campaigns and attack ads, there are practical strategies that candidates and their campaigns can employ to promote a more positive and constructive political environment.
Here are 10 tactics that you can put into effect today:
1. Commit to running a positive campaign. Candidates can set the tone by making a public commitment to run a positive campaign that focuses on their own qualifications, policy proposals, and vision for the future rather than attacking their opponents.
2. Engage in fact-checking and truth-oriented messaging. Counter negative attacks with fact-based information and truth-oriented messaging. Deploy a rapid response team to fact-check and correct false claims made by opponents.
3. Commit to transparency in advertising. Promote transparency by disclosing the sources of campaign funding and disavowing support from organizations that engage in negative attacks.
4. Focus on policy debates. Emphasize the importance of discussing policy issues and their impact on constituents' lives. Encourage debates and forums where candidates can discuss their policy positions in a respectful and informative manner.
5. Conduct community outreach and grassroots engagement. Build strong connections with constituents through grassroots organizing and community outreach. Engaging voters in meaningful discussions can shift the focus away from negative campaigns. It also puts a human face on the campaign and helps connect with voters on a granular, more personal level.
6. Stick to positive personal narratives. Share personal narratives that highlight a candidate's values, experiences, and motivations for running, emphasizing authenticity and relatability.
7. Use social media responsibly. Leverage social media as a platform for constructive engagement rather than as a tool for personal attacks. Engage with voters on social media platforms to address their concerns and answer questions.
8. Encourage media responsibility. Advocate for responsible journalism and encourage media outlets to fact-check and hold candidates accountable for their statements and ads.
9. Focus on the issues that matter: Keep the focus on the issues that are most important to constituents. By consistently discussing substantive policy matters, candidates can elevate the level of discourse.
10. Make a public pledge against attack ads. Candidates can sign a public pledge against using attack ads and negative campaigning, thereby committing to a higher standard of political discourse.
It’s also important to frame your counterarguments and political discourse in a positive way.
Two presidents who were good at this were Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama. Though the two couldn't be farther apart in their ideologies and policy priorities, they shared a similar approach that neutralized any negativity and tied their ideas back to a central theme that was rooted in positivity. Reagan consistently shared his vision for “Morning in America,” while Obama kept voters focused on the idea of “Hope and Change.”
While negative campaigning can be effective, it’s never a substitute for political strategy or voter engagement. However, there are some cases when a candidate can’t rise above the rhetoric.
For example, voters may be outraged about divisive issues and demand answers from candidates. Rather than getting into a war of words with your opponents, neutralize the issue by calmly and clearly stating where you stand and why it matters.
In the case of a personal or policy attack from an opponent, reframe the issue rather than avoiding it or hitting back. Accept critiques that are warranted and offer new solutions or ideas for the way forward.
If there’s something troublesome in your past, get in front of it by bringing it up first and taking the wind out of the attack before it hits.
The impact of negative campaigning can vary greatly depending on the political climate, the credibility of the candidates, and the effectiveness of their campaign strategies as a whole
For independent candidates, taking on the establishment is already an uphill battle. The good news is that there are resources and allies who are poised to help independents run effective, focused campaigns that connect with people in a meaningful way.
Wouldn't it be nice to give voters something positive to support for a change?
Running for office as an independent can be a daunting task. There’s no political machinery available to help raise awareness or those ever-important campaign funds. If and when those negative attacks start hitting, it can feel very isolating and discouraging.
That’s why the political team at Good Party is focused on transforming the political landscape in America by promoting transparency, accountability, and positive change. We’ve created an extensive knowledge base for voters and political hopefuls, and we offer resources that are designed to help independent candidates craft successful campaigns.
Good Party Academy offers a free course that will help you shape a successful run for any elected office. Check it out.