Why do campaigns go negative? It’s usually because they’re losing.
Political consultants advise this risky path when it seems like your campaign has run out of people it can win over… when you’re losing. The idea is you know you can’t add any more to the number of people willing to vote for you, so you try to shrink the number willing to vote for your opponent and even the odds.
Every campaign has some form of “attack” – it’s not only how you differentiate yourself as a candidate, it can convey what you care about. If you think climate change is an urgent crisis, you might attack an opponent’s record of missed opportunities and express a sense of urgency. Most campaigns stick to simply providing a contrast and leave it at verifiable policy positions.
Going negative is something different. Dirty campaigns leave a mark and harm us all. They lower trust and increase partisan intensity. Every new dirty trick justified is a step further from where we all want to be.
Voters tend to view candidates who go negative differently after a dirty campaign, whether it worked or not. Going negative is always a risk – but the risk isn’t just to your reputation as a candidate, it can also impact the reputation of people who endorse and support you. Sometimes it feels like politics is something that happens on TV, but these impacts are very real and lasting for the communities and people involved.
The traditional explanation for why campaigns take the risk and go negative is that it often works. That cannot be accepted as an ethical answer.
Everyone needs to eat. Some of us do things we don’t like to put food on the table. That might include things like cleaning a grease trap for minimum wage. Maybe you’ll bite your tongue as your boss picks the wrong color for a new ad campaign. Going negative to desperately avoid losing a political campaign is not such a thing.
If our politics are to be better, we have to stop accepting fear of losing as an excuse.
Losing campaigns are more likely to go negative when they have too much money. For one thing, how do you really know that you’re losing and need to turn things around? Polling!
Polling isn’t cheap. Most campaigns for state legislature and below never bother conducting polling simply because the money isn’t there. When state legislative races average roughly $150,000, a single polling package can take up ten percent or more of your campaign cash. It’s typically only done in swing districts or as an in-kind (pro bono) contribution by the pollster or the state party. If your campaign rakes in more than that average amount of campaign cash, the calculus becomes different.
Republican Cheri Helt provides a good example. She has raised multiples of the average for a state legislative race. In late September, she spent $15,000 on polling from a firm out of Florida and soon after started running extremely negative ads that drew attention for their questionable content.
More money also often means more consultants. Sometimes out-of-town consultants might not know what’s best for your area.
Helt again provides a good example. Her massive campaign war chest enabled her to hire the kind of DC-based consultants who typically run congressional campaigns. FP1 Strategies, who does her broadcast ads and more, has never worked for another state legislative candidate in all of Oregon, but they do have a client list that includes Ted Cruz. Arena Communications, who produces some of her postcards, has likewise never been hired by another candidate in Oregon at this level.. but they have worked for notorious racist Steve King of Iowa.
Whether a candidate takes the advice of their consultants is a decision that reflects on the candidate and no one else. Even though more money makes it easier to go negative, that’s not an excuse – it’s still a choice. Positive campaigning can be extremely successful for a losing or underdog candidate.
If you find yourself in a losing campaign, you need to ask yourself if what you do next is meeting the needs and values of the community you hope to serve. Are you asking your supporters to defend a negative campaign? What impact will that have on the community, win or lose?
What can be done about negative campaigning? Community leaders can speak out against it and show that it will not be tolerated.
While the choice to go negative is up to the candidate, community leaders – think donors and endorsers – effectively attach their name to the negative campaigns too. They have influence. They can ask the candidate to reconsider – and pull their support if they don’t like the answer.
Members of the community can likewise exert their influence over those community leaders. Like I said, the candidate’s reputation isn’t the only one at stake. These choices affect entire communities.