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Negative campaigning, also known more colloquially as "mudslinging", is trying to win an advantage by referring to negative aspects of an opponent or of a policy rather than emphasizing one's own positive attributes or preferred policies. In the broadest sense, the term covers any rhetoric in which one refers to one's opponent in an ad hominem manner.
Negative campaigning can be found in most marketplaces where ideas are contested. In U.S. politics, "mudslinging" has been called "as American as Mississippi mud". Some research suggests negative campaigning is the norm in all political venues, mitigated only by the dynamics of a particular contest.
There are a number of techniques used in negative campaigning. Among the most effective is running advertisements attacking an opponent's personality, record, or opinion. There are two main types of ads used in negative campaigning: attack and contrast.
Attack ads focus exclusively on the negative aspects of the opponent. There is no positive content in an attack ad, whether it is about the candidate or the opponent. Attack ads usually identify the risks associated with the opponent, often exploiting people’s fears to manipulate and lower the impression voters have of the opponent. Because attack ads have no positive content, they have the potential to be more influential than contrast ads in shaping voters’ views of the sponsoring candidate’s opponent.
Unlike attack ads, contrast ads contain information about both the candidate and the opponent. The information about the candidate is positive, while the information about the opponent is negative. Contrast ads compare and contrast the candidate with the opponent, juxtaposing the positive information about the candidate with the negative information of the opponent. Because contrast ads must contain positive information, contrast ads are seen as less damaging to the political process than attack ads.
One of the most famous such ads was Daisy Girl by the campaign of Lyndon B. Johnson that successfully portrayed Republican Barry Goldwater as threatening nuclear war. Common negative campaign techniques include painting an opponent as soft on criminals, dishonest, corrupt, or a danger to the nation. One common negative campaigning tactic is attacking the other side for running a negative campaign.
Dirty tricks are also common in negative political campaigns. These generally involve secretly leaking damaging information to the media. This isolates a candidate from backlash and also does not cost any money. The material must be substantive enough to attract media interest, however, and if the truth is discovered it could severely damage a campaign. Other dirty tricks include trying to feed an opponent's team false information hoping they will use it and embarrass themselves.
Often a campaign will use outside organizations, such as lobby groups, to launch attacks. These can be claimed to be coming from a neutral source and if the allegations turn out not to be true the attacking candidate will not be damaged if the links cannot be proven. Negative campaigning can be conducted by proxy. For instance, highly partisan ads were placed in the 2004 U.S. presidential election by allegedly independent bodies like MoveOn.org and Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.
Push polls are attacks disguised as telephone polls. They might ask a question like "How would you react if Candidate A was revealed to beat his wife?", giving the impression that Candidate A might beat his wife. Members of the media and of the opposing party are deliberately not called making these tactics all but invisible and unprovable.
G. Gordon Liddy played a major role in developing these tactics during the Nixon campaign playing an important advisory of rules that led to the campaign of 1972. James Carville, campaign manager of Bill Clinton's 1992 election, is also a major proponent of negative tactics. Lee Atwater, best known for being an advisor to presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, also pioneered many negative campaign techniques seen in political campaigns today.
Sponsors of overt negative campaigns often cite reasons to support mass communication of negative ideas. The Office of National Drug Control Policy uses negative campaigns to steer the public away from what they perceive to be health risks. Similar negative campaigns have been used to rebut mass marketing by tobacco companies, or to discourage drunk driving. Those who conduct negative political campaigns sometimes say the public needs to know about the person he or she is voting for, even if it is bad. In other words, if a candidate’s opponent is a crook or a bad person, then he or she should be able to tell the public about it.
- when taking on an incumbent;
- when being significantly outspent;
- when there is irrefutable information that the opponent has done something wrong;
- when the candidate has little name recognition.
Campaign organizers who invest their fortunes in negative approaches do so with considerable research to support the merit of their spending. In a 1996 study, researchers concluded that "the informational benefits of negative political ads possess the capacity to promote political participation, particularly among those otherwise least well equipped for political learning." Their testing found citizens who were aware of negative advertising were more likely to vote than those who didn't express recollection of such ads.
Martin Wattenberg and Craig Brians, of the University of California, Irvine, considered in their study whether negative campaigning mobilizes or alienates voters. They concluded that data used by Stephen Ansolabehere in a 1994 American Political Science Review article to advance the hypothesis that negative campaigning demobilizes voters was flawed.
A subsequent study done by Stephen Ansolabehere and Shanto Iyengar in 1995 corrected some of the previous study's flaws. This study concluded that negative advertising suppressed voter turnout, particularly for Independent voters. They speculated that campaigns tend to go negative only if the Independent vote is leaning toward the opponent. In doing so, they insure that the swing voters stay home, leaving the election up to base voters. They also found that negative ads have a greater impact on Democrats than on Republicans. According to them, base Republicans will vote no matter what (and will vote only for a Republican), but Democrats can be influenced to either stay home and not vote at all or to switch sides and vote for a Republican. This, combined with the effect negativity has on Independents, led them to conclude that Republicans benefit more from going negative than Democrats.
Other researchers have found different, more positive outcomes from negative campaigns. Rick Farmer, PhD, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Akron found that negative ads are more memorable than positive ads when they reinforce a preexisting belief and are relevant to the central issues of a marketing campaign. Researchers at the University of Georgia found the impact of negative ads increases over time, while positive ads used to counteract negative ads lack the power of negative ads . Research also suggests negative campaigning introduces controversy and raises public awareness through additional news coverage .
Risks and consequences
Some strategists say that an effect of negative campaigning is that while it motivates the base of support it can alienate centrist and undecided voters from the political process, reducing voter turnout and radicalizing politics. In a study done by Gina Garramone about how negative advertising affects the political process, it was found that a consequence of negative campaigning is greater image discrimination of the candidates and greater attitude polarization. While positive ads also contributed to the image discrimination and attitude polarization, Garramone found that negative campaigning played a more influential role in the discrimination and polarization than positive campaigning.
Negative ads can produce a backlash. A disastrous ad was run by the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada in the 1993 Canadian federal election, apparently emphasizing Liberal Party of Canada leader Jean Chrétien's Bell's Palsy partial facial paralysis in a number of unflattering photos, with the subtext of criticizing his platforms. Chrétien took maximum advantage of the opportunity to gain the public's sympathy as a man who struggled with a physical disability and his party's subsequent overwhelming victory in the election helped reduce the governing Conservatives to two seats.
A similar backlash happened to the Liberal Party in the 2006 federal election for running an attack ad that suggested that Conservative leader Stephen Harper would use Canadian soldiers to patrol Canadian cities, and impose some kind of martial law. The ad was only available from the Liberal Party's web site for a few hours prior to the release of the attack ads on television; nevertheless, it was picked up by the media and widely criticized for its absurdity, in particular the sentence "we're not making this up; we're not allowed to make this stuff up". Liberal MP Keith Martin expressed his disapproval of "whoever the idiot who approved that ad was," shortly before Liberal leader Paul Martin (no relation) stated that he had personally approved them. The effect of the ads was to diminish the credibility of the party's other attack ads. It offended many Canadians, particularly those in the military, some of whom were fighting in Afghanistan at the time. (See Canadian federal election, 2006)
More recently, in the 2008 US Senate race in North Carolina, Republican incumbent Elizabeth Dole attempted an attack ad on Democratic challenger Kay Hagan, who had taken a small lead in polls, by tying her to atheists. Dole's campaign released an ad questioning Hagan's religion and it included a voice saying "There is no God!" over a picture of Kay Hagan's face. The voice was not Hagan's but it is believed the ad implied that it was. Initially, it was thought the ad would work as religion has historically been a very important issue to voters in the American south, but the ad produced a backlash across the state and Hagan responded forcefully with an ad saying that she was a Sunday school teacher and was a religious person. Hagan also claimed Dole was trying to change the subject from the economy (the ad appeared around the same time as the 2008 financial crisis). Hagan's lead in polls doubled and she won the race by a nine point margin.
Because of the possible harm that can come from being seen as a negative campaigner, candidates often pledge to refrain from negative attacks. This pledge is usually abandoned when an opponent is perceived to be "going negative," with the first retaliatory attack being, ironically, an accusation that the opponent is a negative campaigner.
While some research has found advantages and other has found disadvantages, some studies find no difference between negative and positive approaches .
Research published in the Journal of Advertising found that negative political advertising makes the body want to turn away physically, but the mind remembers negative messages. The findings are based on research conducted by James Angelini, professor of communication at the University of Delaware, in collaboration with Samuel Bradley, assistant professor of advertising at Texas Tech University, and Sungkyoung Lee of Indiana University, which used ads that aired during the 2000 presidential election. During the study, the researchers placed electrodes under the eyes of willing participants and showed them a series of 30-second ads from both the George W. Bush and Al Gore campaigns. The electrodes picked up on the "startle response," the automatic eye movement typically seen in response to snakes, spiders and other threats. Compared to positive or neutral messages, negative advertising prompted greater reflex reactions and a desire to move away.
Controversy and regulation
Critics of negative campaigns sometimes contend that negative ads are not always used for the stated reason. In some cases, negative campaigning presents twisted or spun information under the guise of bringing hidden negatives into the light. Sometimes those who practice negative campaigning and publicity also denounce the approach when used against their side by telling the attacker to be nice, be civil, stay clean, be positive, not hurt others, not get personal, not to scare people, etc.
In commercial advertising, various regulations prohibit false advertising and broadcast campaigns to promote potentially harmful activities, such as advertising tobacco products. Similar regulations have at times been proposed to limit negative political campaigning. Such restrictions have been proposed to regulate political advertising on television and radio, where negative claims might not be fully explained due to time constraints, and would expand disclosure requirements in printed political advertising.
In modern Western societies, however, proposed regulation of public speech is confronted by strong traditions favoring the open exchange of ideas, and by fundamental legal protections such as those of the United States Bill of Rights. Practical considerations also weigh against regulation of political speech. Using rhetorical devices such as straw man or red herring arguments, a negative campaign can insinuate an opponent holds an idea without directly accusing the opponent of favoring those ideas. Within constitutional guidelines, few regulations could lawfully control candidates' statements in public appearances, where comments are often repeated in news broadcasts. To the contrary, public figures such as politicians enjoy weaker protection against false allegations than do average citizens.
- The Coffin Handbills used by supporters of John Quincy Adams against Andrew Jackson in the 1828 presidential campaign. Jackson's mother was called a prostitute, and his wife an adulteress.
- The first radio advertising using negative campaigning came from the Republican Party in 1936.
- The Daisy ad used by Lyndon Johnson against Barry Goldwater in the United States presidential election, 1964.
- "Black baby of John McCain" slur in the George W. Bush primary campaign.
- Willie Horton and Revolving Door ads used by in the 1988 presidential campaign against Michael Dukakis.
- The "Convention Ad" run by Richard Nixon against Hubert Humphrey in the 1968 presidential election.
- Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion Comment by Reverend Samuel Burchard in the 1884 presidential election.
- Attacks against George W. Bush's military record in the 2004 presidential election, and attacks against John Kerry's Vietnam service record by some Navy Swift Boat veterans of the Vietnam War.
- 1993: "Harry and Louise" ads attacking President Bill Clinton's health-care reform proposals.
- 2005: Jerry Kilgore's pro-death penalty attack ad against his opponent, Tim Kaine, in the 2005 Virginia gubernatorial campaign. The ad, particularly its invocation of Hitler, contributed to Kilgore's defeat by Kaine.
- 2008: Hillary Clinton's "3 a.m. phone call" ad questioning the crisis management abilities of her opponent, Barack Obama.
- 2008: Elizabeth Dole's ad against Democratic challenger Kay Hagan in her 2008 Senate re-election campaign, where Hagan was said to be "Godless". The ad backfired, as it sharply reduced support for Dole. Dole was defeated by Hagan in the election.
- 2014: Justin Amash was smeared as "Al-Qaeda's best friend in Congress" by his primary opponent Brian Ellis.
- New Zealand: In the 1975 New Zealand general election, the opposing National Party launched the infamous "Dancing Cossacks" television advertisement. Animated by Hanna Barbera, the attack advert claimed the incumbent Labour Party's recently introduced compulsory superannuation scheme could eventually lead to Soviet-style communism.
- Canada: In the 1993 Canadian federal election, the Progressive Conservative Party launched attack ads that were widely seen to be mocking opposing candidate Jean Chrétien's facial deformity. See: 1993 Chrétien attack ad
- United Kingdom: During the run up to the 1997 UK general election, the Conservative Party ran a campaign that stated that the Labour Party was dangerous and used posters of Labour leader Tony Blair with "demon eyes" on them. The campaign failed as Labour won in a landslide.
- Claim in 2001 by the Conservatives that Labour policy had led to serious crimes by released prisoners, similar to Willie Horton
- Mexico: in the 2006 presidential election, current president Felipe Calderón launched TV ads that stated his opponent, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, was "a danger to Mexico". To this day, López Obrador continues blaming the negative campaign for his defeat and saying that it was part of a conspiracy that the Mexican business elite planned against him.
- Canada: In the 2008 Canadian federal election, the Conservative Party released an ad featuring Opposition Leader Stéphane Dion being defecated on by an animated puffin. Harper later apologized for the ad.
- In the Crewe and Nantwitch By-election in 2008, The Labour Party ran a personal class-based campaign against the Conservative candidate Edward Timpson, calling him "the Tarporley Toff", "Lord Snooty", "Tory Boy Timpson". Labour supporters donned top hats to mock Timpson, whose family own a national shoe repair and key-cutting business. The campaign was very poorly received and was condemned as negative and xenophobic by Conservative leader David Cameron.
- Democracy and election-related topics
- Defamation -includes libel, slander
- Dirty tricks
- Discrediting tactic
- Opposition research
- Political campaign
- Push poll: push-polling
- Smear campaign
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- Winning, But Losing, Ansolabehere and Iyenger, 1996
- Girl seen in Clinton's '3 a.m.' ad supports Obama
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