Politicians often promise the electorate, especially at the outsets of their campaigns, not to “go negative” or take pot shots at their opponents. We hear phrases like “issues oriented,” “positive campaigning,” and “bridging partisan divides.” And behind the scenes, no matter the rhetoric, somebody, somewhere, is digging up dirt on the other side. But why? What is the appeal and effect of negative campaigning?
According to statistics from ThisNation.com, a non-partisan, academic run website on US politics and government, voters generally don’t hold politicians in high regard, expecting that they’ll twist the truth, outright misrepresent their opponent, and/or sling mud to win elections. But what I find more interesting is a recent article from Deborah Jordan Brooks who teaches at Darmouth College, which shows that negative campaign advertising both mobilizes men to the polls, and de-mobilizes women.
In the middle of the summer, the Democratic Senate candidate from Florida, Kendrick Meek, unveiled a mocking ad against his expected GOP opponent, showing Jeff Greene as a carpetbagging disco slimebag. Meek is now well behind GOP candidate Mark Rubio. Bradley Byrne, running last summer for Alabama Governor was attacked for believing in evolution, something many in the GOP probably still ascribe to, if not publicly. He lost in the runoff election in July. Democratic West Virginia Governor, Joe Manchin, has gone negative so many times in his campaign to be senator he threatens to reverse his polarity permanently; an ad from September questioned his opponent’s company’s history of mine safety, even though John Raese’s Greer Industries has received several safety awards from Manchin’s own administration. I’ll note here that earlier today, Raese was outed as belonging to the same whites-only Florida country club of which Rush Limbaugh is a member. That’s the stuff of Manchin’s negative ad dreams.
Going negative can mean close to anything—a candidate is trying to secure her/his base, deflect attention away from their own insufficiency, or is caught speaking out of turn—but most experts agree that it’s often a sign that a campaign is off-track. And while voters may say they’re exhausted from negative campaigns, they still respond, depending on the nature of the attack, the general tenor of the rest of the campaign, and the history of that district or state.
Negativity reached a nadir last night during the Kentucky Senate debate between Tea Party candidate Rand Paul and Democrat Jack Conway. Conway asked about Rand’s college affiliation with a religion-bashing group that included some arguably offensive moments, and Paul responded by saying that Conway was disrespecting the state. The two didn’t even shake hands at the end of the debate, with Paul walking off the stage.
While mud seems to get slung in every direction, voters now think that Democrats have been more negative in 2010 than the GOP. This may reflect the idea that it’s the Democratic side that is on the defensive, which would go along with the history of midterm elections, in which the party that controls the Executive Branch loses seats in Congress and in governors’ races. Although party insiders on each side will analyze this election after polls close on November 2, chances are nobody will walk away from negative campaigning for the next election.