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Negative Politics: Smear Campaigning

Updated on August 21, 2013

Political Campaigns the Negative Way

Do negative politics work? That is, do such advertisements convince voters to cast their ballots in favor of the campaign running the ads, or do they have an unwanted effect? Oversaturated markets may lead to constituents simply turning off the television or radio when yet another annoying commercial comes on running political claims. Some voters may punish those candidates that run on negative platforms, by either staying away from the polls, or by voting for the other party all-together. So, it is worth it to engage in negative politics?

If you are a candidate running for office, a negative campaign ad will not focus on what you will do in office, but what your opponent will fail to do. You have shifted the focus from you, the candidate to your opponent, the person you don't want people to vote for.

Negative politics are not limited to just the big races, like presidential elections and gubernatorial campaigns, either. We've probably all witnessed fierce cat-fights for city council positions, and Parks and Recreation board of director seats. Some would even say that the mud-slinging gets even more personal in the local races. People know each other more intimately. They'll see each other at their kids' baseball games and at the same Rotary Club meetings. So watch it when the gloves come off!

Have you had enough of Negative Politics?
Have you had enough of Negative Politics?

Negative Politics

In general, negative politics are characterized by the following:

1. Claims About Opponents' Voting Records

You would think that these statements would be relatively easy to verify, i.e., Mr. White voted against a woman's right to chose 8 times in 2004!!! But as a voter, you should find out the context of the votes, or if a vote actually even took place. Maybe the bill was a rape bill that had nothing to do with abortion rights, and had everything to do with gathering evidence against criminals! It can be easy to manipulate the truth. On the other hand, there may be truth behind the claims that should give you basis for concern - even if the original statement is somewhat inflated (maybe Mr. White only voted against the right to choose 4 times...) Consider the facts (if you can find them out) before believing negative politics commercials.

2. Claims About What Occurred During the Opponents' Youth

So many of us make mistakes growing up. Fortunately, most of us do not run for political office! Can you imagine having your past being opened for scrutiny like these public figures? Yes, its true, some of them smoked, and probably DID inhale. I'd figure that many have some illicit sex affairs lurking in closets (male and female... swinging both ways....) But for this information to come out as fodder for negative campaigns, usually smacks of bad taste these days. Unless the person running for political office broke laws - and did it recently - most people would rather forgive and forget. Plus, unless there is good, substantiating evidence, you may not want to go there as an opponent.

3. Claims About What Opponents Will Do If Elected

This is the most popular tactic, by far. And, of course, the most effective, if done right. As shown below, George H.W. Bush won the 1988 election in part by the fear factor of convincing the electorate that Dukakis was soft on crime and would let serious criminals out of prison too easily, too early. At the time of this publication, in the 2008 Presidential Election, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are still fighting it out for the Democratic nomination. Clinton claims that Obama is not experienced enough and will make mistakes with respects to nationalized health care, the war in Iraq and other issues of national concern.

4. Claims About Opponents' Morals (or Lack Thereof)

This often comes down to one political party versus another. Republicans against Democrats. But although the GOP likes to claim that it has the moral majority, each candidate will break it down, person to person, to show how he or she is morally superior to the other. This is exhausting, of course, for the voters (and the general public who may not even be casting votes in the election!) I think that the basic advice is always the best... keep the eyes on the prize. If you are the candidate, you are the prize. Talk about you, your dedication to worthy causes, and why you should be elected. Forget about your opponent's shortcomings. They will be obvious when all that you do is set forth for everyone to see.

An absence of negative politics would be heavenly
An absence of negative politics would be heavenly

What do Voters Want to Hear in a Political Campaign?

Negative politics certainly can work if you are running for political office. As a consistent voter, however, I can say that I would much rather hear about what you are going to do if elected to office.

Only if there are serious shortcomings of concern that should be brought to the public's attention is it worth a negative ad campaign.

In the vast majority of cases, negative political campaigns are simply a matter of one person trying to bring one person down in order to bring him or herself up. In my humble opinion, that doesn't make you a worthy candidate.

When do Negative Politics Work?

One of the most effective negative politics in recent history was the so-called "Revolving Door" ad run by President George H.W. Bush against Governor Dukakis in 1988. It was created to make the point that Dukakis was allegedly soft on crime and that criminals would be in and out of prison so fast that there would be a revolving door.

Why was this so effective? It played on voters' fear of criminals being loose on the streets. A president who would ensure they would be locked up was preferable to one otherwise.

Similarly, the famous "Daisy" advertisement in 1964 led to LBJ's victory. While I am too young to remember the ad, I can certainly remember the fear of the Cold War.

I can understand why people would have voted for Johnson to avoid the prospect of nuclear war. Negative politics definitely play on fear of the electorate.

What Do You Think About Negative Politics?

As a voter, I would much rather hear what politicians running for office are going to do once elected, than endure negative politics, as usual. Key issues in the near future are the credit crisis and becoming energy independent.


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    • profile image


      4 years ago

      Really informative article post.Thanks Again. Awesome. bebfcagfddke

    • stephhicks68 profile imageAUTHOR

      Stephanie Hicks 

      7 years ago from Bend, Oregon

      Isn't that the truth, Fay! Politicians seem to only say what they think will get them votes, regardless if its "right" or aligns with their personal values. Sad, sad.

    • profile image

      Fay Paxton 

      7 years ago

      I'm with you Steph, I just want to hear the facts. Oddly sometimes politicians agree, yet they behave as if it is an absolute sin to acknowledge it.

    • Bbudoyono profile image


      9 years ago

      Hi Stephhick68. I like your hubs on politics.

    • stephhicks68 profile imageAUTHOR

      Stephanie Hicks 

      10 years ago from Bend, Oregon

      Hi Sweetie Pie! Thanks for the comment - you are right that negative ads are certainly not new. They just seem more pervasive than in the 1800s with TV and radio on all the time. There's no escape! Yikes. I also agree that the negativity towards Obama has seemed particularly harsh and unfounded (his heritage, religion, and even his name!) Thank goodness the election is nearly over.... We get a break for a while

    • SweetiePie profile image


      10 years ago from Southern California, USA

      In my humble opinion the opposition towards Obama has been a little too negative through out the years leading up to the election.  Only after Obama received the Democratic nomination did some of the ridiculous rumors about his heritage die down, and even some Democrats were guilty of these.  After reading most of his book the Audacity of Hope and seeing what an intelligent man Obama is, he is even more of my choice candidate than Hillary.  If she had been in the race I would have been happy, but I do like how Obama is a new comer and I think he has a great deal of potential.  I also admire Colin Powell and I think it says a lot for him to endorse Obama.  Sorry for getting up on my political soap box, but this has just been my take on this election.

      By the way, in the late 1800's campaign ads were even more negative than today. It is not a new thing :).

    • stephhicks68 profile imageAUTHOR

      Stephanie Hicks 

      10 years ago from Bend, Oregon

      Right again - I think that when one side is doing it, the other feels compelled to counter with their own negative political ads. I was so happy to hear Colin Powell take a stand. He can at least set the tone for future prominent elections. It will really take a brave candidate to say - and mean - no negativity 100%. Same thing goes for real life, huh? :-)

    • shibashake profile image


      10 years ago

      I am really glad that Colin Powell spoke out against those type of ads. Perhaps when more and more prominent people speak out against these tactics, we will begin to see some change. Perhaps we can all do our part by trying to reach out to the people on the other side, no matter how negative they are. But that is very difficult to do - it is difficult not to get dragged down by the negativity.

    • stephhicks68 profile imageAUTHOR

      Stephanie Hicks 

      10 years ago from Bend, Oregon

      Hi Shibashake, thank you for the comment! Negative political advertisements are, unfortunately, the norm these days. Naïve voters may believe what they hear on the TV and radio. It is completely devisive and not helpful at all. I would much rather hear about what the candidates will do - rather than what they SAY their opponents will do, or have done. I just don't trust that information at all.

    • shibashake profile image


      10 years ago

      Enjoyed your hub. I am really disappointed with how things have been moving in terms of our political landscape. I believe that it is much more useful to have honest discussions of the issues rather than what we have right now. What the McCain campaign has been doing lately has really crossed the line. These extremely negative ads. just divides us as a nation and we all become weaker as a result. Just look at the comments in the recent political hubs. Sadly, negative ads can work, sometimes really well. We should start to consider what we can do to move away from this destructive style of politics ...

    • stephhicks68 profile imageAUTHOR

      Stephanie Hicks 

      10 years ago from Bend, Oregon

      Ervin, you are so right. The negative political ads barely contain a shred of distorted truth to them (if any) and are very misleading. No wonder people hate politics so much!

    • solarshingles profile image


      10 years ago from london

      We can hear far too many very negative political adds on TV, Radio,newspapers, magazines, online and even by robot telephone calls, these days. In most cases they are just pure lies, which generate hatred towards the opponent candidate.


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