Thank God For Negative Campaigning
Rather than being a bad thing, negative campaigning is an essential part of our political system.
Every election cycle, without fail, pundits, journalists, and even politicians decry the prevalence of so-called “negative ads” in political campaigns. This kind of political campaigning, they tell us, is what helps to create the coarse and vitriolic political culture that we all complain about. Typically, the argument against negative ads ends up relying upon extreme examples of negative ads that we have seen over the years such as the ad from the 1990 campaign of the late Jesse Helms that has been called one of the most racist ads ever aired in a political campaign, 1988’s Willie Horton ad against Michael Dukakis, and, of course, the famous “Daisy” ad from the Lyndon Johnson campaign that achieved immortality even though it was only run on television once. Without ads like these, the pundits and analysts claim, our campaigns would be “cleaner” and more focused on issues. For their part, candidates frequently make pledges not to run negative ads, although that often ends up being a pledge more honored in the breach as the definition of what a “negative” ad is seems to become more and more flexible as the campaign goes on.
Viewed abstractly, I suppose that there is something appealing about the argument that our political campaigns ought to be more high minded, and that they should avoid getting down into the mud as they inevitable seem to. Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper made that basic argument over the weekend in an interview with The Washington Post’s Dan Balz, in which he characterized such as ads as “depressing the product category of democracy.” However, as Chris Cillizza points out in a response to Governor Hickenlooper’s argument, a world without “negative ads” would be pretty boring, and it would not serve the interests of voters very well at all:
Elections are about choices. The best way to make an informed choice is to know as much good (and bad) information about the candidates as possible.
Take it out of the political context for a minute. When you are going on a trip and shopping online for a hotel, would you prefer to read only the positive reviews about the place you are thinking about staying? No way. You want — and, if you are Mrs. Fix, crave — the negative reviews too. Once you read the good and the bad, then you make your own decision. You might decide that the people writing the negative reviews sound likes cranks who are just sour about everything. Or maybe you decide that the positive reviews feel a little too similar to the hotel’s promotional materials for you. Whatever. The point is you harvest a bunch of different opinions and then make your own decision.
Now, zoom yourself back into the political world. Getting rid of all negative ads — as Hickenlooper wants to do — means that you would be, essentially, forced to decide between two candidates based largely on their promotional materials. Positive ads tell the best case story of a candidate — and that’s often as far (if not further) from the truth then most negative ads. A candidate running for office at age 24 who has never held a job inside or outside elected office? That’s a “fresh-faced outsider” in a world of only positive ads. A candidate who moves into a state/district to run for office? That’s someone whose “chose to live in this terrific community.”
All of the above is not to say that negative ads are a good and great thing for democracy. They can, as Hickenlooper argues, have dampening effects on turnout as voters get sick of all the negativity. And, there are some that cross the line from tough attack to unfair character assassination.
But, we now live in a fact-checking political culture. Not only do most media organizations employ a fact-checker to investigate claims made by politicians – Glenn Kessler plays that role for WaPo – but the Internet allows any one curious enough to investigate claims being made in ads.
I am not saying that we should live in a political culture in which only negative ads are run. But, I am saying that it would be just as bad if we lived in the world Hickenlooper envisions in which only positive ads could be run.
As a preliminary matter, of course, any suggesting that Hickenlooper makes that negative advertising of any kind should be banned is clearly unconstitutional. Not only could the language of the First Amendment on that matter not be any clearer, it seems rather obvious that any effort to regular speech in the context of a political campaign would be viewed negatively by any Court that such a law ended up before. That is one reason why efforts to regulate campaign finance and spending have often had difficulty passing Constitutional muster, because the alleged interest asserted by government, whether at the Federal or State level, is often not sufficient to overcome the interests protected by the Constitution. One of the biggest defects of the law at issue in the Citizens United case, for example, was the manner in which it attempted to regular what parties, including parties not even connected to the political campaigns themselves, could say and do within a certain amount of time before the election. Clearly then, any legislative or regulatory attempt to ban “negative” ads would be unconstitutional.
Leaving aside the legal arguments, though, it seems clear that Cillizza is correct here. As much as we complain about them, negative ads, and negative campaigning are an essential part of the political process. To pick the most extreme example, if I’m running against someone who has something in their past that the voters ought to be aware of, such as a criminal record or some actions they took that contradict their personal beliefs, then how else would I make voters aware of this fact other than by means of what would be called “negative campaigning?” More broadly, though, one of the most important things a candidate can do during the course of an election is contrast their views with those of their opponent. That too is so-called “negative campaigning.” Obviously, the ability to make these kinds of distinctions, and to educate voters about an opponents record and history, is very valuable to candidates challenging incumbents, who already face huge odds against them to begin with. Take away the ability of candidates to engage in that type of campaigning, and you’ve taken away much of the value of political campaigns to begin with, and made things a lot easier for incumbents. Perhaps that’s why an incumbent politician like Hickenlooper is in favor of doing ‘something’ about so-called negative campaigning.
It’s true that, sometimes, negative campaigning can go over the top, whether by bringing in irrelevant personal issues or engaging in the kind of racially based attacks that were epitomized in the Jesse Helms ad in 1990. As I noted when I wrote about this in 2010, though, our system has a way of being self-regulating when it comes to candidates who engage in that kind of behavior:
[F]or all the complaining about true “negative ads,” it’s pretty clear that the political process itself is very self-regulating when it comes to punishing candidates who go too far. When Elizabeth Dole ran a despicable ad challenging her opponent’s Christian faith because she took a campaign contribution from a prominent atheist, the voters of North Carolina reacted negatively. This year, Jack Conway’s “Aqua Buddha” ad seems to have put the final nail into the coffin of his campaign, and, down in Florida, bombastic Congressman Alan Grayson seems headed for defeat after running two ads against his opponent that were, to put it bluntly, blatantlyfalse. So, a candidate who goes over the top usually gets punished in the end.
Finally, there’s this one obvious truth — political candidates would not run “negative ads” if they didn’t think they would work. If voters want to find anyone to blame for “negative ads” then what they really need to do is look in the mirror.
That last point is perhaps the most important. Campaigns would not engage in negative campaigning if it didn’t work, and we have plenty of evidence to show that it does in fact work. The Willie Horton ad worked because it fed into the general impression that the Bush campaign was able to create in 1988 that Michael Dukakis was an out-of-touch liberal Democrat from the Northeast, and Dukakis did many things himself during the course of that campaign to reinforce that notion. The George W. Bush’s negative ads against John Kerry in 2004 worked in a similar manner because they reinforced the preexisting notion, created in no small part by Kerry himself, that Kerry was out of step with the rest of the country. Properly executed, a negative campaign draws out the contrasts between the two candidates, points out the weaknesses of one’s opponents, and reinforces the general message of the campaign itself. These ads have always proven themselves to be very effective.
The reality, of course, is that negative campaigning is nothing new in American history. It existed long before radio, television, and the Internet ever came into existence and, in many cases it was far more vicious than it is today. The vitriol that was poured out against Abraham Lincoln in 1860 and 1864 was positively racists in many cases, in the late 19th Century, Grover Cleveland was dogged by allegations of an out of wedlock birth, and in 1920 Warren Harding found himself facing a whisper campaign that had been following since he had entered politics, that somewhere in his past he had an African-American ancestor. Perhaps the most negative campaign in American history, though, happened more than 200 years ago when John Adams and Thomas Jefferson squared off in a campaign that was featured accusations of everything from colluding with the British to bring back the Monarchy to a plot to bring the Terror that had followed the French Revolution to America, complete with “children writhing on pikes.” Had there been television back then, perhaps the ads would’ve looked something like this:
Our nation managed to survive that negative campaign, as well as all the others that followed. One could even argue that our political system is better because of them. Rather than bemoaning today’s version of “negative campaigning,” we should be celebrating it for the great example of full and open political dialogue that it actually is.
“As a preliminary matter, of course, any suggesting that Hickenlooper makes that negative advertising of any kind should be banned is clearly unconstitutional.”
And what suggestion is that, Doug? The one he makes when he says “Although he vows that his campaign will not air any negative ads, he knows there will be negative ads aired in Colorado between now and November, lots of them, and some perhaps aimed at helping him get reelected.” Or the one where he says “If I can convince people that good people don’t do attack ads, and that we want good people to represent us, then the attack ads work against themselves.”
I know you have this vision that every Democrat is trying to ban everything. However, it often (like here) is just in your head.
I didn’t see any of the ads where Jefferson was attacked for not being Christian and the same probably applies to Adams who was a Unitarian which was not considered “Christian” back then is still not considered a christian religion by most now.
Not like I would know from experience but it seems like I read that they were not christian 50 years ago when I was in High School and actually gave a damn about such things.
Have they been assimilated?
Thank God for Negative Campaigning
Ya know we really shouldn’t give invisible deities credit for something excel at all on our own.
(2nd request…please extend the edit function to the rest of the day)
I don’t know about thanking God for negative ads, but we all owe him a debt for creating straw men, or posts like this would never exist!
Again, thanking God for anything in this world makes you a loon. If God created the universe, naturally everything is his fault. There’s no point in being redundant about it unless you’re offering a particularly obsequious prayer, and those are discouraged by Matthew 6:7 onwards.
Then again, I don’t know why I’m bothering to post this, “Thank God” is more a cultural expression now than a religious one. And looking at the comments, people getting antsy about it being used should keep in mind plenty of atheists use the expression because it is so endemic in our culture, not because they believe in a deity.
Cillizza claims politics would be boring without negative ads? He needs to realize that when he’s writing political news, he is writing for a niche audience. In the wider mainstream, politics is boring. Everybody talks and yells at each other and nothing gets done. No explosions or gunfire, no sex, nothing that’d catch the primordial instinct of each human. You have to have a specific kind of itch to get into political news.
Also, Doug, the kind of negative ads you mention, where possibly relevant facts about a candidate’s positions are used against them, are not really negative ads as people tend to define them. The commonsense definition is really more along the lines of slander, like what Rove did with McCain’s adopted daughter from Bangladesh. Hell, the ads that contrast positions and make the opponent look bad in retrospect are the kinds of ads that matter most.
I’m having difficulty seeing the sliming of McCain’s adopted daughter or the swiftboating of John Kerry as “great examples of full and open dialog”. Id love to see a press that would expose the lies, like that would ever happen. The press shifted the meaning of “swiftboat” from false negative attack to any negative attack simply because they’re too chickenstuff to take a stand. Short of the press growing some, I share Doug’s opinion (see the Ohio political ad lying case) that there’s not much legally we can do about the lying. But I certainly do not share the First Amendment absolutism that leads him to celebrate this stuff.
I don’t know which is more annoying “Thank God” or “bless you”. Which is a contraction of “God Bless You”…Like they can tell God what to do…
Rather going the obvious route here Doug and just listing all the horrendous negative ads in the past, I’m instead going to point out that the efficacy and corresponding prevalence of negative have a deleterious effect on our body politic in non-campaign seasons.
1) They warp the legislative process with stupid poison pill votes- throwing something that no person can oppose (even if its not all that important) in an overloaded and otherwise contentious omnibus bill in order to induce legislators to support the bill– say a minor increase to the sentence guidelines for child sex traffickers (adding say 5 years to a 75 year term) attached to the defense budget or something– this leads to legislators voting for bills they would otherwise vote down– all to avoid the “Senator Smith voted against strengthening sentences on Child Sex Traffickers” ads.
2) They poison the well, this is admittedly more a complaint about our overall political dialog, the media, etc. — but negative ads are put of the reason that a significant amount of Moron-Americans believe death panels exist.
3) They suppress the vote- I’ve worked on campaigns as a career for 3 cycles now, and let me be real clear- negative ads are effective (though strong positive ads stand out to voters and actually help quite a bit more in terms of bringing out a base you can use in the field as opposed to just votes) but they largely suppress the vote and lock in incumbents– they especially turn off the non-base and infrequent voters.
@Tillman: Cilliza remarks reflect the deep “its only a game” cynicism of the political media– after all they’re almost universally at least comfortably middle class, so its more like a sporting event than something that actually effects their day to day lives.
@Tillman: @socraticsilence: I find myself regarding politics as sports. I can dig into minutiae, watch coverage, and root for my team just as most of my peers follow sports. However politics has the added spice that it makes a difference. Fifty years from now few will remember who won the World Cup in 2014 and it will have made a real difference in the lives of almost no one. It will make a difference in fifty years that Obama defeated Romney.
I couldn’t agree more. Even though we SAY we abhor negative campaigning the fact is we love it, and they keep running these type of ads at us, and we definitely do not ignore it, we respond to it. Negative campaigning is a dog whistle, it’s a call to us to get up, get out, and vote.
I think the ”thank god for negative campaigning” relies on a broader definition of negative campaigning than what most people mean when they speak out against negative campaigning. Most people don’t decry speaking out against an opponent’s policy choices, they are against personal smears. One is an obvious good, the other is slimy.
I don’t mind negative ads. If nothing else, they help me form an opinion of the supporters of each candidate, and how low they are willing to stoop. I find that informative.
What I abhor is when there are nothing but negative ads. I need at least one positive statement of beliefs, policies, preferences, whatever from each candidate. In recent years, I don’t get them — I get platitudes, talking points, and mudslinging.
I still think the one mandatory filing from each Presidential candidate should be a proposed balanced budget. “If I had to sign a balanced budget, this is where I would make the cuts.” No easy decrying of the things your opponent would cut; no refusal to cut anything, no voodoo supply side miracles. Show us what your budget would look like if it had to fit within last year’s revenues. That would not only weed out all the pretenders, it might wake the country up to just how deep our current hole is.
@DrDaveT: What if you believe that aggressive Keynesian or supply-side policies would change the economy and tax revenues? For that matter, what if you don’t believe in the value of a balanced budget? What if you have a feasible, implementable 20-year plan for reducing the deficit but no short-term plan?
“Show us what your budget would look like if it had to fit within last year’s revenues.”
So do you believe the answer to our budget problems is solely on the spending side, and any candidate who proposes tax increases is a “pretender”?
Good questions, all.
Then by all means campaign on that platform — the more details, the better. But that doesn’t get you out of having to lay out what you would do if you were restricted to current revenues. The point is not to actually implement that plan — it’s to force positive statements of priorities (and arguments for them) instead of merely talking in generalities about “cutting welfare” and “strong defense” and “funding education” and “universal healthcare”. Lafferians can then talk about how they are going to increase revenues by cutting taxes, and how they will spend the extra money. Others can talk about what they would tax, and how they would spend the revenues. But I want to hear the “no free lunch” scenario from both sides, so they can’t finesse the question of what they would cut if they had to.
It would also force people to confront exactly how much of federal spending is (and is not) in discretionary categories they like and dislike, and how much of spending is mandatory.
@Moosebreath, does that answer your question as well?
“does that answer your question as well?”
No. Even if you were to also require the converse (that the candidates needed to create revenue to equal current spending and therefore state what taxes they would raise, which strikes me as equally important), it still strikes me as forcing all candidates to meet your preferred tests to run for President.
Does that mean a person whose primary interest is foreign policy gets to require all candidates to run through each country on the planet and state what policies they would propose with respect to them? A person whose primary interest is their views on Constitutional Law to explain in detail what each provision of the Constitution means and how to balance competing interests?
Of course we should all create our own political tests, and bounce them off of each other. I’ve pointed out what I think are flaws in Dave’s test. Others will judge differently. It’s unlikely that any of us will have a major say in the nominations process, but it’d be great if we can talk amongst ourselves and build some kind of approach that could pick up steam (or what passes for steam online).
And the other side of it is that we should actually look at what the candidates have done, and have voted for. The best indicator of future behavior is prior behavior. It’d be easier if we had a functioning press and an attention span longer than yes I would like to see what the Top Five Movie Bloopers are [return]
“Of course we should all create our own political tests, and bounce them off of each other.”
True, but Dave was arguing for making preparing a balanced budget without tax increases the only requirement for all candidates.
“And the other side of it is that we should actually look at what the candidates have done, and have voted for. The best indicator of future behavior is prior behavior. It’d be easier if we had a functioning press and an attention span longer than yes I would like to see what the Top Five Movie Bloopers are”
@Moosebreath: Agreed with what? I was too busy looking at “Kate Upton’s thoughts on Her Breasts” and “29 Celebrities Caught Drunk and Completely Wasted” (actual ads appearing on this page).
I don’t care what any particular individual’s primary interest is; I care about the job we’re hiring for. That job is (essentially) CEO of the United States of America. There are certain fundamental duties that go with that job, and “What should our relations with Botswana be?” isn’t very high on the list of priorities. “What should our government be doing, and how will we fund that” is considerably more central.
I’m not sure where you got the idea that I think this should be the only requirement for candidates. It’s a necessary, but not sufficient, bit of information to have from each candidate. Honestly, I don’t understand what you think is unreasonable about asking a candidate how she would cope with the current situation, what she would do if that situation persists, and how she thinks she could make that situation better. In detail. I object to Pinky’s characterization of this as a “political test”. It’s not about politics, it’s about practicalities.
@DrDaveT: I didn’t use “political” as a pejorative. You could substitute the word “policy” if you choose.
“I’m not sure where you got the idea that I think this should be the only requirement for candidates.”
I am not sure how else to read “I still think the one mandatory filing from each Presidential candidate should be a proposed balanced budget.” (emphasis added).
The budget is one of many critical duties of the President, not the only one. And treating it like it is the only one (and especially giving an extremely misleading picture of it by focusing solely on the spending side and not the revenue side) is not giving voters a very good picture.
@Pinky: I’ve been thinking about this, and I don’t like the term “policy test” either. I’ve talked before about my preference for candidates with experience. I know that Newt’s had at least one wife too many for me to vote for him. Those aren’t policy tests. “Candidates’ test” is sufficiently general.
Fair enough; a definite article slipped in there when I wasn’t paying attention to my fingers. That said…
At this particular moment in American history, I think it dominates — especially if you consider our recent war spending “discretionary”, as I do.
Would you be happier if I asked each candidate to submit a balanced budget, showing both outlays and revenues? I could live with that. I was trying to keep it simple for purposes of comparison (and because I think there’s a lot more tendency toward magical thinking on the revenue side).
@ernieyeball: Then there’s the version “Bless his heart” which is Southern for “scum scraped from the bottom of my shoe after walking through a cowfield”
“At this particular moment in American history, I think it dominates — especially if you consider our recent war spending “discretionary”, as I do.”
With the most recent full fiscal year’s budget deficit at 4% of GDP, I’ll disagree.
“Would you be happier if I asked each candidate to submit a balanced budget, showing both outlays and revenues? I could live with that. I was trying to keep it simple for purposes of comparison (and because I think there’s a lot more tendency toward magical thinking on the revenue side).”
Somewhat. Only looking at spending implied a starting point of no new taxes in future budget negotiations. If Obama had presented that in 2012, I can easily see the House passing the cuts he proposed and no tax revenues and daring him to veto it. And @Pinky’s questions above remain valid.
It’s not the deficit; it’s the debt. If you’re in a hole 40 feet deep, it isn’t really a good thing that you’re only digging it deeper at 6 inches per day.
My proposal had nothing to do with future budget negotiations, because it was not about proposing a policy to be implemented. It was an answer to a forced-choice question, in order to learn something about priorities. I’m not sure how else to say that to make it clear.
When Barbara Walters asks people “If you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be?”, do you interpret the responses as proposals to become a tree?
I thought I had answered them, but I see that I did not answer the question “What if you don’t believe in the value of a balanced budget?” explicitly. I’ll give it the same basic answer as the others — feel free to campaign on that basis, explaining your reasoning. But first, answer the forced-choice question so that I can learn something about your priorities and your beliefs about the state of the Union and how the economy works.
Sorry, but I disagree with you so strongly both on your single minded focus on something I believe is not in the top 5 of problems facing this country and on the sheer political naivite you are showing on the effects that your proposal would have if implemented that if anyone in Congress actually proposed something like this, I’d make my first ever political cash contribution to defeat that person.
You’re certainly entitled to disagree, but I would be curious to hear your list of five problems that you think are more serious than the debt. Not because I want to argue, but because I genuinely have no idea what they might be.
As for “single-minded”, you did catch the previous reply where I agreed that “the one mandatory filing” was a mistake on my part, and that it should have read “one mandatory filing”, right?
” but I would be curious to hear your list of five problems that you think are more serious than the debt. Not because I want to argue, but because I genuinely have no idea what they might be.
As for “single-minded”, you did catch the previous reply where I agreed that “the one mandatory filing” was a mistake on my part, and that it should have read “one mandatory filing”, right?”
First, your comment right there shows how single-minded your focus is, in that you cannot conceive anything else would be higher in priority, even though the deficit has been greatly trimmed in the last few years. Your other comments in this thread show this as well.
Second, far higher on the list of problems facing this country would be job creation, inequality, climate change, and relations with China. Then there is a second tier of problems, including inflation (only this low currently due to low actual inflation, I’d be surprised if the Fed did not need to “take the punch bowl away” in the next 2-3 years), immigration, infrastructure, relations with Russia, relations with India/Pakistan, long term budgeting for entitlements and terrorism/homeland security. I would put the deficit at the low end of the second tier.
I promised not to argue, but I do need to point out that you keep saying ‘deficit’ when I said ‘debt’ — the two are not the same. I’ll also point out that at least 5 of the things on your list are equivalent to “the debt”, or require getting the debt under control before we can address them. “Long term budgeting for entitlements”, in particular, is practically synonymous with “managing the debt”.
“I promised not to argue, but I do need to point out that you keep saying ‘deficit’ when I said ‘debt’ — the two are not the same.”
You are correct that they are not the same. However, the debt is not paid down by the immediately balanced budget that you demand all candidates provide, which if implemented would do far more harm than good to the state of the economy. The deficit on the other hand, would be removed. So maybe you need to figure out why it is so critical to have the deficit immediately reduced to zero, as opposed to the long term reduction Pinky suggested.
“I’ll also point out that at least 5 of the things on your list are equivalent to “the debt”, or require getting the debt under control before we can address them.”
No, they do not require addressing the debt first. To the contrary, to me they are far more important than the (not remarkably high by the standards of other developed nations) debt or the (rapidly falling) deficit.
““Long term budgeting for entitlements”, in particular, is practically synonymous with “managing the debt”.”
Umm, do you want to tell me again that I’m the one confusing deficit and debt? Because that’s precisely what you are doing.
And some much needed perspective on the “debt crisis” from Paul Krugman
“About those projections: The budget office predicts that this year’s federal deficit will be just 2.8 percent of G.D.P., down from 9.8 percent in 2009. It’s true that the fact that we’re still running a deficit means federal debt in dollar terms continues to grow — but the economy is growing too, so the budget office expects the crucial ratio of debt to G.D.P. to remain more or less flat for the next decade.”
@Moosebreath: OK, I’ve looked at the numbers again, and you are right and I was wrong. Compared to reining in Medicare and Medicaid growth, nothing else really matters.
I think we’re screwed.