Negative Campaigning – How to Do It Right

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I hate the whole concept of negative campaigning.  In my opinion, if you have to talk about your opponent at all in order to win, you’re not a good enough candidate to run.  Your message should always be about you.  That being said, there are times when at least addressing some of your opponent’s flaws or behavior is unfortunately advantageous.  So here’s a rough guide to negative campaigning, without looking like an A-hole.

When we talk about negative campaigning, we are usually talking about TV ads, direct mailers, or radio and newspaper ads, rather than speeches and debates, so keep that in mind.  There are varying degrees of harshness in negative campaigning.  The types of negative campaigning are:

  • Compare/Contrast Campaigning – This is simply outlining the differences between you and your opponent.  This is the most tolerable type of negative campaigning because it usually draws on facts rather than accusations.  Example: “Jones voted to raise taxes on the middle class 112 times as Congressman.  Smith has signed a pledge to never increase the burden on the American taxpayer.”  As you can see, it’s based in fact and points out the differences between the two candidates in a way that is favorable to yours.
  • Negative Campaigning – These ads are more one-sided, and may not mention your candidate at all, or if it does, sends a completely unrelated message.  Hopefully it is still solidly rooted in fact.  Example:  “Congressman Jones cheated on his property taxes.  If you have to pay your taxes, shouldn’t your Congressman?” (reverse side) “Vote for Smith on Nov. 8th.  Smith will fight for you.”
  • Mudslinging – Mudslinging typically happens when a campaign realizes it has very little going for it, and must switch to serious attack mode to have a fighting chance of winning.  The content in these ads may be outright lies, but are usually loosely tied to a vote, often taken way out of context.  For example, imagine an incumbent voted to improve the health standard requirements for medical clinics, including Planned Parenthood offices that perform abortions: “Congressman Jones wants to shut down clinics providing essential medical services and deny women their right to choose to give tax cuts to the rich.  Do you really want a greedy misogynist as your Congressman?”
As you can see, these levels go from reasonable, to just tolerable, to nasty.  And once you start, it’s a slippery slope downhill.  So how can you use negative campaigning tactics effectively without losing your integrity in the process?
  • Define your campaign’s message before you even put your name on the ballot.   Your campaign message should first and foremost be about you.  It should be about issues your constituents deal with on a frequent basis, and how you plan to make it better.
  • Make sure that any ads you create addressing your opponent are:
    1. Completely factual in nature, and NOT taken out of context, preferably with multiple points of proof.
    2. Are based on issue quotes from your opponent’s speeches or his voting record – not his personal life, sex scandals, personal tax evasion, and other salacious stories.  Leave that to the press to address.
    3. Always point back to your campaign message.  Always.
  • Don’t let negativity define your campaign.  If you do decide to dabble in the dark arts of campaigning, get back out of it as soon as you can, and use it very, very sparingly.  Most campaigns wait until perhaps a week or less before election day to pull out the negative direct mailers and commercials.
  • Let someone else do it.  It may just be that a top-gun PAC like the NRA or NRTW is supporting you.  Groups like these have no integrity issues with slamming the crap out of candidates they don’t like.  So let them!  Ideally they’d do this as an independent expenditure so it doesn’t directly taint your campaign.  You can even admonish them for creating negative attack ads, which you vowed your campaign would never do, all the while enjoying the boost it’ll give you in the polls.  Just make it clear to these groups that whatever they want to do is fine and won’t hurt your relationship with them, but that your campaign can’t be a part of any negative campaigning they may or may not have planned.  They’ll take the hint.
  • Don’t set your opponent up for a home run.  Some negative information can actually be turned into an advantage for your opponent.  You can avoid this by sticking to legislative matters rather than personal, and using only relevant, recent data.  A vote to raise taxes from 20 years ago isn’t much to stand on if your opponent has voted down every tax hike since.
So there you have it.  Negative campaign if you must.  But please, people, do not give up your integrity!  I’d rather be a great guy who lost this time than a d-bag that won the slimy way.  As a side note, those d-bags tend not to have long political careers.

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