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Does negative political campaigning work?

Has a study been done on elections where fear/hate is the motivator? Simply put, do the firebrands win more often than the moderates? —Art Erickson

SIMPLE (if two-part) question, simple (if two-part) answer:

1) Yes, going negative works.

2) When did it not?

No question, negative campaigning has been on the rise in recent times. A look at presidential races found that between 2000 and 2012, positive advertising decreased from 40 percent to 14 percent, while negative advertising increased from 29 percent to 64 percent. (Yes, a campaign consists of more than paid advertising, but we have to start somewhere.) A study of congressional campaigns found attack advertising increased from 32 percent in 2000 to 52 percent by 2012.

Why? Let me gaze at my navel. It could be the result of the current 24/7 media bath in which only a bold, controversial message has any chance of grabbing the electorate’s attention. It could be due to the us-versus-them mentality that’s poisoned American politics. Or it could be a byproduct of our thoroughly tabloidized American culture, awash with reality shows and Kardashians.

Or—you’ll never guess what I think—it could be few researchers tracked negative political advertising before the 1990s and people have short memories, so we don’t have much basis for comparison. One of the most notorious attack ads in American political history aired during the presidential campaign of 1964—the “Daisy” commercial produced by the Lyndon Johnson side, in which a shot of a little girl pulling petals from a flower segues to a missile countdown and then a blast and a mushroom cloud, followed by a grim voiceover: “Vote for President Johnson on November 3. The stakes are too high for you to stay home.” Implication: Johnson’s opponent, Barry Goldwater, was an irresponsible extremist who’d drag the country into nuclear war.

The ad ran once. Johnson won in a landslide. OK, single datapoint. But it’s easy to come up with others—ask Michael Dukakis if he thinks the Willie Horton ad hurt him in the ’88 presidential race. Inevitably we drift to the conclusion: negative advertising works, and always has.

We needn’t rely on anecdotal evidence. While I don’t put too much stock in political science research, a study of 143 U.S. Senate elections from 1988 to 1998 found that for every 6 percent increase in negative campaigning, the candidate’s performance at the polls improved by 1 percent—but only for challengers. Incumbents reduced their performance at the polls by 1 percent for every 6 percent of their campaigns they devoted to attacking their opponents.

This may be true in general—the default pitch for any incumbent surely has to be that life is better since he or she took office—but it’s not always true, as the LBJ ad demonstrates. Turning to the political laboratory known as Chicago, we note that incumbent mayor Rahm Emanuel trounced challenger Chuy Garcia 56 to 44 percent last month by suggesting that were his relatively inexperienced opponent elected, Chicago would go the way of Detroit.

(Garcia’s given name, you may recall, is Jesus. No great talent as a cartoonist is required to cast Rahm as the Prince of Darkness. It tells you something about politics in America, or anyway in Chicago, that in a confrontation with the Devil, Jesus lost.)

Back to our subject. Riffling through the research and applying the filter of common sense, I offer the following observations:

• To be effective, negative advertising needs to be plausible. The Daisy ad worked because, in those innocent times, Barry Goldwater really did seem like a nut. Had LBJ’s opponent been some moderate Republican stalwart like Nelson Rockefeller, that kind of ad would have made Johnson look like the screwy one.

• The least effective strategy is going after your opponent’s extramarital affairs, drug or alcohol addiction, or other personal foibles—which is to say, your campaign can’t be seen as doing this. As any specialist in oppo research knows, it’s advantageous to have your opponent revealed as a philanderer provided the news appears to come from third parties. Not that success is guaranteed even so; consider the unsinkable Bill Clinton, repeatedly named in tales of striking tawdriness that mainly provoked the reaction (from both men and women, as far as I can tell): he risked his career over her?

• What seems to work best is going after your opponent’s inconsistent voting, broken campaign promises, contributions from special interest groups, and dubious business practices. To which I can only say: this is bad?

Getting back to current events, I don’t wish to make too much of Rahm, but his recent campaign provides a stark lesson in why negative campaigning is often the logical choice. In an era of straitened resources, where the only responsible course is to ask the public to give more and get by with less . . . good luck trying to win on that message. A demonstrably more effective strategy is to get the electorate thinking: sure, things’ll be bad if this schmuck is elected—but under the other schmuck they’ll be worse.