The Negative Campaigning Debate

People have lots of different opinions on “negative campaigning.”  Some say never use it, some say always use it… and some are in between.  Every year around election time, there are huge debates on cable news shows and in the editorial pages about “going negative,” and the repercussions of modern political combat.

Today, I’d like to define the term, and discuss three of the most common forms of negative campaigning candidates employ.  Many of our readers may choose to refrain from any negative or comparative campaigning.  Many others will always choose to use it in one way or another.  I’m not trying to sway you either way… instead, I’d like to simply get you thinking about negative campaigning, and encourage you to discuss how you’re going to use it (or not) in your own campaign.

Defining the Term

The first thing we need to do is to define what we mean by “negative campaigning.”  Simply put, negative campaigning means talking about your opponent and his or her campaign in a less than favorable light.  It means either directly attacking your opponent or her policies, or comparing and contrasting your candidate’s views to your opponent’s, with your campaign obviously being presented in a positive light, and your opponent not as favorably.

There are three primary types of negative campaigning:

1.  Ad Hominem Attacks

The Latin term ad hominem means, “against the person.”  These types of attacks are personal attacks against your opponent that bear little or no relation to the campaign at hand.  Examples of ad hominem attacks are intimating that your opponent is overweight, ugly, married to a mean spouse, etc.

In my view, and the view of most professional political operatives, these attacks are unethical and counter-productive, and should not be used in any campaign.

2.  Policy Attacks

As you can guess from the term, policy attacks are campaign messages that attack the policies being proposed by the opposition… these attacks either go directly after the policy statements and promises of your opponent, or compare his policies with your own candidate’s, and point out where the opposing candidate’s promises and views fail.

While some candidates and operatives don’t use policy attacks (instead focusing on only positive themes that promote their own candidate) most professional operatives and candidates believe that policy attacks are ethical and productive in political campaigns.

3.  Character Attacks

The third and final type of negative campaigning is using character attacks against your opponent. These attacks suggest that certain things in your opponent’s current or past life make him or her unfit for the job they are seeking.  Examples of character attacks range from the mundane to the sensational (e.g. he or she failed to pay taxes for five years, was convicted of a crime in their youth, or is a bad and verbally abusive husband, wife, father, or mother.)

Character attacks are the real grey area in negative campaigning.  Some operatives are totally against using them, others believe that they are acceptable so long as they relate directly to the campaign.

Having worked with hundreds of political consultants, candidates, and operatives over the course of my career, I would say that the general opinion of most professionals is that character attacks are ok in some very limited circumstances (e.g. not paying taxes, or being convicted of abusing a public office to which one had been elected a decade ago), but not ok in circumstances where such attacks border on ad hominem attacks or are based on rumor and innuendo.

To Use or Not to Use?

Now that we’ve defined negative campaigning, and the three primary types we see in modern campaigns, its up to you, and your campaign, to figure out what kind of negative messaging (if any) you want to use.


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8 comments… add one
  • Ben,

    Thanks for your comments. “Attack ads” shouldn’t be nasty, and instead should be truthful representations of your opponent’s record or views. That being said, comparison pieces are my favorite, and I have found them to be highly effective.


  • Ben Edwards

    I do not like the strait attack ad, where someone just insults their opponents policies or character, however for me the comparative ad is great. I realize it is the same basic thing, but it shows that a candidate is capable of identifying problems and creating a solution to them rather than just pointing out what is wrong.

  • Thanks for your thoughts Scott. I guess my thoughts are that in a vigorous democracy, we’re going to disagree on things. Life and death, good vs. bad, justice and peace type things. Things so big, we’re bound to argue and disagree.

    If I see two candidates who disagree on a life and death matter, and they are running ads telling you why they are right, and why thier opponent is wrong, I don’t mind – I may get tired of the ads, but I am glad people are debating the issue.


  • scott

    I personally am getting completely frustrated and quite frankly sick and tired of all the negative campaigning. At this point I’m ready to throw both candidates under the bus and vote for anybody but them just out of spite. Whatever happened to your mother smacking you in the back of the head and saying…”if you can’t say anything nice then don’t say anything at all” in this instance I’d rather they all just said nothing at all.


  • Brian,

    Thanks for your comment — you’re right, tone absolutely makes a big difference. People (even votes!) understand when someone is being mean-spirited or unsportsmanlike…. and they don’t like it! For an example, just look at last cycle, when the Corzine campaign in NJ seemed to go too far and started focusing on (now Gov.) Chris Christie’s weight.

    Thanks again for your comment,

  • I don’t believe in negative anything and this would be no different.

  • You left out one major distinction in negative campaigning that I think makes a big difference in how it is perceived: tone.

    You can be ugly, mean and over the top, or you can poke fun and make the jab humorously – the same message will have a different impact depending on its delivery.

  • What are YOUR views on negative campaigning? Leave a comment and let us know…

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