It comes around every two years - those months of heavy campaigning for the major seats of political office. As Election Day approaches, the advertisements get grittier and more hateful. Every year, instead of filling the media with messages of hope, optimism, and useful information, the campaigns seem to be getting more and more negative. Many candidates rely almost completely on attacking their opponents instead of touting their own strengths and points of view. Why? What’s the point of being so negative in a political campaign and smearing the opponent’s name? When did campaigning for a political office turn into this? In truth, it might surprise you how far back this kind of tactic goes. Let’s take a closer look at negative campaigning, its rise to popularity, and whether or not it has gotten worse in recent years.
When Did Negative Campaigning Start?
The beginnings of negative campaigning in the United States can be traced to its infancy, as far back as 1776. Founding Fathers Thomas Jefferson and John Adams may have worked dutifully to help claim America’s independence, but by 1800, it seems that party politics divided the pair. Their policies had separated so far from one another that it was the first time this country saw a President and Vice President run against each other for office.
While there was no active campaigning by those running, Jefferson went to some extremes. He hired a “hatchet man” to do his smear campaign for him. The man doing the smearing was named James Callendar, and he went around convincing many Americans that Adams wanted to attack France (an unpopular stance at the time). Adams did not hire a hatchet man of his own and claimed that he was above such tactics, but the smear campaign set forth by Jefferson proved effective. In the end, Jefferson won the election, but Callendar ended up in jail for what he wrote about Adams.
Modern Negative Campaigning
When you think of modern negative campaigns, you’ll notice that most of it is done through commercials. Some negative talk is done in campaign speeches, debates, or websites, but this is much more rare than TV ads and video content on social media. Over the last ten years, there has been a rise in negative ads, whether it’s for a state office or a federal one, with the presidential campaign of 2016 being no exception.
With the rise of social media, there are more eyes on the political ads and more chances for them to spread than ever before. And nothing draws attention better than a bitter battle between two parties. So it’s not so much that there is a need for more negative campaigning, but that it’s an easier way to quickly spread the word and build yourself up as a candidate to highlight the faults, real or imaginary, of your opponent.
Why Campaign Negatively?
You can see so much negative campaigning from both sides of the political game that it’s a wonder that anyone wins these elections at all. Is it really that effective of a strategy? Why does campaigning turn so negative and spiteful over the course of an election season?
Very few politicians start their political journey with an attitude of negativity and hateful belligerence, and often it’s the last resort of a struggling opponent. The use of negative campaigning can be turned into a critical strategy for a challenger to an office who is running against a well-established incumbent. If a challenger starts to focus on the incumbent’s undesirable characteristics by using negative ads, it’s likely that the incumbent will resort to the same tactics.
There are several factors that can cause a turning point in campaigning when candidates or their sponsors are more likely to turn to negative campaigning, including:
- Closeness of the race.
- Incumbency status.
- Being attacked by the other party.
These factors are not the only reasons why politicians turn negative, as each campaign is unique in its own way. However, these four factors play a large role in determining how quickly a candidate will consider resorting to negative campaigning.
Does Negative Campaigning Change Minds?
Several surveys and polls have claimed that negative campaigning and ads do not have a changing effect on voters. However, many politicians and journalists disagree, saying that negative ads work. But what do they mean by the ads ‘working’? One possibility is that it builds relative rather than direct support for the candidates. Even if the negative ads do not determine the candidates a voter chooses on Election Day, it’s possible that the negativity lowers the confidence that individuals have in their candidate choice. Also, a flaw in the surveys and polls is that the people answering the questions might have been swayed by negative campaigning without realizing it.
Does Negative Campaigning Effect Voter Turnout?
As stated above, it’s not clear whether or not negative ads about a candidate will persuade voters to change their minds, but does it affect the number of voters who go out to the polls and actually vote? Research has shown that well-timed negative campaigning may indeed have a noticeable effect on voter turnout. In general, negative ads that are aired earlier in the campaign season have a different effect than those aired at a later point. Earlier ads mobilize people by making them more confident in their candidate choices, whereas later ads make people feel decreased confidence in their choices and end up turning them away from the polls. Perhaps this is why those mean spirited ads in that last weeks leading up to Election Day seem to hold nothing back?
[bctt tweet="With midterms upon us, don’t let the negativity being slung from either side sway your resolve to vote for the politicians you believe in."]
No matter what city or state you live in, there will always be some negativity blaring through the television set (or on your Facebook feed). As we get closer to the November election date, it’s only going to get worse, making us all wish that election time would hurry up and get here. With midterms upon us, don’t let the negativity being slung from either side sway your resolve to vote for the politicians you believe in. No matter your stance, the most important thing is to get out there and vote!