Going negative: Why do they do it?
October 19, 2010
How many folks out there are sick and tired of all those negative political campaign advertisements on TV and on the radio? Hold up your hands.
OK. Looks like almost everyone detests the political mud-slinging. But, not everyone. Some of the professional political campaign consultants out there did not hold up their hands.
Now, why is that? It is because study-after-study shows negative campaign messages can, if they follow certain criteria, be very effective. For a negative charge to stick, it must be true. Moreover, the facts to back up the charge must be readily available via the media to the public. Finally, the subject matter of the negative charge must be pertinent to the public. In other words, the subject matter of the negative message must deal with an issue or issues that, well, matter.
Moreover, once a political campaign goes negative, it cannot very well go back to the positive. A negative charge that is withdrawn or is pulled down off the air will be perceived as false, even though the negative assertion might have been true all along.
For some serious insights on negative campaign messages, we are indebted to our colleague, Rich Galen, who is often seen on national political pundit programs aired by MSNBC, NBC, ABC, Fox and CNN. When it comes to knowing what is going on in the world of political campaigns, Rich is a Washington insider’s insider.
Rich is also one of my heroes because, even though a civilian, Rich volunteered to spend almost a year in Iraq helping our all-volunteer military get out the news about what they were doing in the field. He didn’t have to do that. He also volunteered to go to Afghanistan where he acted as an observer for one of their national elections. He didn’t have to do that, either.
Rich’s wit and wisdom also appear on-line several times each week at http://www.Mullings.com.
After stating that human beings are hard-wired for gossip, Rich writes: “Negative ads are nothing more than highly distilled gossip and are not designed to drive up votes for the candidate running the ads; they are designed to affect people who might have been thinking about voting for the opponent. This is called: Voter Suppression.
“If your polling shows that you are losing Independents 65-35 (as many incumbent Democrats are) then your goal is not to get those Independents to vote for you – that’s too hard. The goal is to get them to have doubts about your opponent and not vote at all.
“Every two Independents who watch your negatives ads, throw up their hands, and say “a pox on both your houses is effectively one vote for you. Everyone says they hate negative ads, but they work and that’s why campaigns use them.”
To that, let me add: Be careful to differentiate between an attack ad and a response ad. Sometimes, the candidate who is being attacked has no choice but to respond to his or her attacker, even though the responder runs the risk of coming off as negative. As in football, the player responding to being fouled is often the “innocent” who draws the penalty.
So, the next time you see or hear one of those negative campaign commercials, ask yourself if your are being psychologically bludgeoned into staying away from the polls or throwing your mail-in ballot in the trash.
Nationally syndicated columnist and former political consultant, William Hamilton, was educated at the University of Oklahoma, the George Washington University, the U.S Naval War College, the University of Nebraska, and Harvard University.