Is dirty/negative campaigning effective?

I’ve been pondering this a while, more intensively lately because it’s general election time here. My party has the firm policy of staying away from negative campaigning and focusing on issues. This is obviously the morally and democratically correct thing to do, but is it as effective?

Most of the hypothetical models I ponder show that negative campaigning is both easier and more effective, at least in the short run. I’d like to be convinced otherwise.

Remember the Swiftboaters and what they did ? It was as nasty as it could get and apparently worked.

What party is that? Have they won any elections?

I hate negative campaigning, but unfortunately it works or they wouldn’t use it.

Ask Helen Douglas, i.e. The Pink Lady.

Not only does that indicate the effectiveness of such tactics, but the case that the details can actually be fabricated out of whole cloth without the slightest bit of substance.


While I agree negative campaigning sucks, why is avoiding it necessarily correct “democratically”?

From what I recall of U.S. history, negative campaigning has been around since the founding fathers.

Not only is it effective, it’s probably the most consistently effect tactic available. That’s why they do it. If it didn’t work, candidates wouldn’t spend so much money on it.

*Ma, Ma, where’s my Pa?

Gone to the White House, ha ha ha.*

Think that was campaign mud flung at somebody…maybe Harrison…back in the day.

Ideally, a campaign seeks to accomplish three things:

A) Energize your supporters to vote

B) Convert your opponent’s supporters

C) Convert or at least neutralize the undecided vote

Negative campaigning is highly effective in accomplishing A and C.

Why is it morally and democratically correct?

If I say my opponent voted against the education bill, called for cuts to school spending, and is opposed by the teacher’s union, and therefore is a step backward for our kids, that’s certainly negative campaigning. But assuming each of the arguments leading to the conclusion is correct, there’s nothing immoral or undemocratic about saying that.

In fact, if someone isn’t doing some negative campaigning in order to draw distinctions between candidates or parties, they’re doing a disservice to the voter.

Of course it is. If you throw enough mud, you are bound to get enough to stick to have made the effort worthwhile.

I wouldn’t say that is “negative campaigning”. If your campaigns main focus was on what makes your opponent a bad candidate rather on what policies you have or what makes you a good one, it would be what I consider negative campaigning.

I withdraw the “This is obviously…” and replace that with “I think this is…” since it’s obviously not… eh… obvious. To everyone.

So. If negative campaigning is more effective, and is neither less or more democratically or morally correct. What are the arguments against it?

My favourite description is that of Lyndon Johnson–may be legendary:

“He was sunk in despair. He was desperate… he called his equally depressed campaign manager and instructed him to…accuse his high-riding opponent (the pig farmer) of having routine carnal knowledge of his barnyard sows, despite the pleas of his wife and children… His campaign manager was shocked. ‘We can’t say that, Lyndon,’ he said. ‘It’s not true.’ ‘Of course it’s not,’ Johnson barked at him, ‘but let’s make the bastard deny it.’…”

Negative campaigning is an effective strategic move. It tends to make an opponent respond, and directs the campaign away from other issues where a candidate may be weak. Its very effective for a candidate who has more money than his opponent because the opponent has to waste resources trying to maintain responses to counter at an equal level to the accusation. Negative campaigning also tends to diminish turnout on election day, especially for independents and infrequent voters. The candidate with the strongest ‘base’ vote will benefit from the low turnout.
Negative campaigns do backfire sometimes though. They may excite the base of the opposing party, or reveal something about the nature of the candidate that is undesirable. Also, the old ‘people who live in glass houses’ adage. Negative campaigning opens the door for counter-smears which may be more effective. The recent Sestak-Spector primary is an example of a backfire.
Unfortunately, a lack of response to smear tactics may be worse than the tactics themselves. Some political analysts think the lack of response from John Kerry was more damaging than the Swiftboat attacks themselves.
Politics is a pretty dirty game, candidates who aren’t prepared to deal with the tactics are at an immediate disadvantage.

I believe there are serious studies about this. Iirc, focusing on issues is harder to understand and remember to voters.

Yeah seriously what party is that?

In this case it happens to be the green party, of which I am a member, but I’d rather not focus on which party but on the abstract ideas of positive vs. negative campaigning.

A recap of the discussion so far:

  1. Negative campaigning isn’t immoral or bad for democracy
  2. Negative campaigning is easier and more effective than positive campaigning

So, any reason not to run a mostly negative campaign? So far the only argument against it is that it might leave openings for even more effective counter-attacks.

If I recall correctly from my former Political Science life, the most common result of negative campaigning is to depress voter turnout, particularlt independants. That could be woefully out of date, though, it has been a while since I’ve read any academic papers on the subject.

Grover Cleveland. The first verse was the mud flung; the second verse was added by Cleveland’s supporters after the election.

  1. Who says it’s not immoral? If the negative campaign is based on lies, it’s immoral in my book. Not illegal though. Who says it’s good for democracy? If it’s based on legitimate matters relevant to the election, fine. But negative campaigns can just be a way to keep the electorate uninformed or misinformed.

  2. Sometimes it’s easier or more effective, sometimes not, depending on the circumstances.

Sometimes a negative campaign backfires without a counter-attack. Sometimes the voters are just sick of it.

Remember the deluge of slime launched against Sarah Palin? Not only did it not work, but it backfired badly; all the Democrats had to do was wait for her to be interviewed.