Negative Campaigning: Advice for Attacker and Attackee
William S. Bike, vice president of Chicago-based ANB Communications, is an award-winning journalist and public relations professional.
William S. Bike, vice president of Chicago-based ANB Communications, is an award-winning journalist and public relations professional. The following excerpt is from his book Winning Political Campaigns: A Comprehensive Guide to Electoral Success, published in May 1998. Recommended by such successful politicians as Fran Ulmer, Lieutenant Governor of Alaska, and former Senator Paul Simon (D-IL), the 240-page book is available from The Denali Press.
"Going negative" is not a step to be taken lightly, although today more campaigns go negative more quickly than ever before.
Janice M. King, president of Janice King Communications, when discussing negative advertising in general, said that negative messages about competitors create FUD: fear, uncertainty, and doubt. You must consider seriously the implications of your candidate causing FUD and its resulting stresses on the political system.
Going Negative: Why and How
Campaigns & Elections reported that Cathy Allen, president of Campaign Connection of Seattle, indicated that going negative might be the proper course when taking on an incumbent, when the opponent is outspending the candidate by large margins, when there is irrefutable information that the opponent has done something wrong, and when the candidate has little name recognition.
For better or worse, negative campaigning works. According to Dean Michael Mexay of DePaul University,
... what negative advertising does is get your supporters committed and excited. Those who are indifferent are so turned off that they are less likely to vote, as are people who are for the other candidate--so not only does it help you, but it depresses turnout. The ideal, rational goal is to turn out your most committed supporters and make sue nobody else turns out.
If you are making an outrageous charge against an opponent, document it. Illinois U.S. Senate candidate Al Salvi in 1996 insulted Jim Brady, President Regan's former press secretary, a gunshot victim, and a national hero, by calling him a former machine-gun dealer. (Brady had endorsed Salvi's opponent, Richard Durbin.) The charge had not been verified and was completely unsubstantiated. Coming in the last weekend of the campaign, the gaffe was one from which Salvi could not recover.
Double-check everything. In a 1992 California State Assembly race, a campaign released to the media information that its opponents was a pornographer--but the pornographer was actually a different man with the same name. Oops! In 1996, a Quebec legislation, claiming vote fraud, gave an example of allegedly fraudulent names registered in his district: "Omar Sharif" living with "Martina Navratilova." Oops again. Turns out that Sharif is the son of the actor, and his wife is a stockbroker whose name really is Martina Navratilova.
If you discover something damaging about your opponent, do not send it to the media anonymously. You can come right out and make charges, or you can request that the media print or broadcast the information without attribution to you or the campaign. The media generally will honor that request. If they receive it from an unknown source, however, they will either figure it is a trap or have no way to follow-up and learn more, so their only alternative is to ignore it.
Likewise, if your campaign receives unsolicited material about an opponent, it could be a set-up. Do not use it without independent verification.
You will have to do most of the research to convince the media to bite. "If you get 70 percent of the work done, that's about enough for reporters to follow it up," one Republican opposition researcher told U.S. News & World Report. "If you give them 30 percent, most won't do the story."
If the Media Won't Bite
If the media will not cover the negative information on their own and the campaign has to promote it, the candidate generally has to be the one responsible for releasing the negative information, rather than a member of the campaign team. If the campaign is going to launch an attack, the candidate cannot expect to take refuge behind a staff member when the inevitable return-shelling commences.
If you are campaigning negatively via mailed or distributed campaign literature, however, the candidate should be kept out of the piece, with nothing more than a "Paid for by Citizens for Joe Goodguy" disclaimer. You do not want Joe Goodguy's picture on the piece so that the voters will think the negative information is about him instead of his opponent.
Do not bombard the public with reams of negative information; instead focus on potential hot buttons that are easy for voters to understand. The governor's mansion's food budget was always an issue when James Thompson was Illinois' chief executive in the 1970s and 1980s. People understood that what the state was spending on the governor's groceries was far out of whack compared to what they were spending at the supermarket.
Set the stage. Start making noises that the opponent is a big spender or a hypocrite before dropping the big bomb. Set that bomb off early. The closer to election day a negative attack is made, the less credibility it has.
Humor can be an effective form of negative campaigning. Although he did not win, Illinois Lieutenant Governor Bob Kustra gained some points in his 1996 U.S. Senate primary against State Senator Al Salvi by depicting Salvi, a personal-injury attorney, in humorous commercials showing a lawyer literally chasing an ambulance.
Avoid Being Too Negative
Do not make the attack too mean. In the 1993 Canadian national election, conservatives attacked the physical handicaps of the liberals' candidate for prime minister. Not only did the liberal win, but voters were so appalled at the conservatives' behavior that only two Tories were elected to Parliament from the whole country (the conservatives had previously held 154 seats)--effectively wiping out the entire party for one election cycle.
When the candidate is running against a member of another religion, he or she can attack the opponent's political positions on the issues, but not her or her religiosity. The candidate also must not act as if he or she is religiously superior to the opponent. These tactics have always backfired, whether the opponent was John Kennedy or a member of the Christian right.
Negative campaigning can backfire in many other ways. It turns off voters and causes opponents to respond in kind. It can cause voters to wonder if your candidate has some of the same negatives his or her opponent does and can create a negative campaign opening for your candidate's opponent.
What If You're the Attackee?
The following are a few traditional strategies for dealing with a negative attack:
- Admit it before the attack even comes. Jerry Ford was candid about the fact that he had started dating wife Betty before her divorce from her first husband was final, and Jimmy Carter's campaign could not make an issue of it in the 1976 presidential race.
- Attack the attack, criticizing your opponent for negative campaigning, or you can respond with negative information about the opponent or the attack tactics as well--what lawyers call discrediting the witness. This is what the 1992 Clinton presidential campaign did with Gennifer Flowers. If possible, get a blue-ribbon source to refute the attack.
- Turn the attack into a positive. President Truman's Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, had once been dumped from an economic advisory post by President Roosevelt. That could have been considered a negative among FDR supporters, but Acheson's disagreement with Roosevelt had been over devaluation of the dollar, which could have been played as a positive to sound-money advocates. It is all in the spin.
- Deflect it with humor. In 1988, Illinois Cook County Board President George Dunne was tainted by scandal when two women he had sexual relationships with were later hired for county jobs. Supporters defended him by arguing he was a widower and therefore single, stressing the jobs were extremely low-paying and not political plums, and marveling that a man in his seventies could be involved with two women. Amazingly, this worked, as most of the media comments were jocular ones on the "wow, what a man" defense. Everyone had a good chuckle and the scandal disappeared.
The humor strategy can backfire, however. If the charge is serious and the candidate is making jokes, that can alienate and anger even more voters.
- Deflect it with sorrow. This is effective when the story is instinctively something that the public knows should have remained private, like the fact that the candidate's wife was pregnant when the couple married. Express your sorrow that the media or the opposition would bring up something so personal that is irrelevant to the campaign.
- Stonewall by saying there is no story. This never works. Richard Nixon's resignation as president is the ultimate proof.
- Stonewall citing higher motives. This seldom works because it makes the candidate look falsely pious. One situation in which it did work is when opponents accused 1990 Texas gubernatorial candidate Ann Richards of having smoked marijuana in the 1960s. She refused to answer the charges on principle, stating that for her to do so would encourage people not to give up drug or alcohol use because no matter how long they had been clean they would have to face those allegations. Believe it or not, it worked--in Texas yet. Richards not only won in 1990, but the issue did not arise during her reelection campaign in 1994.
- Admit the indiscretion and ask for forgiveness. Ask people to make their decision on more important issues. This is the strategy actor Hugh Grant employed to return to the public's good graces after he was caught with a prostitute. Another lesson is to know when to remain silent. Grant took it too far by appearing on almost every talk show, and the public began to tire of his apologizing.
- Neither admit nor deny the allegation. Instead, release reams of pertinent information, financial documents, and other related items that are so difficult for the media and the public to wade through that they will forget the whole thing.
- Deny the charge and demand proof. This works only if the charges actually are not true. Spiro Agnew did this and discovered that the media had rock-solid proof of his crimes.
- Deny the charge and demand an apology. This also does not work if the charges are true.
- Blame the media and demand they reveal the unidentified source. This seldom works, unless the voters in your district generally hate the media. Plus, it angers the media so that they go after your candidate with an even greater vigor. Agnew loved to blame the media and ended up resigning the vice presidency.
- Ignore it. If the charge is small or little-publicized, sometimes it will go away. Mayor Richard J. Daley of Chicago did this with the only allegation of financial impropriety that had ever been made against him: a charge in the 1970s that he and his wife had secretly established a real estate firm that did business with the city. The firm was small, the business was petty, nobody cared, he ignored the criticism, and the charges disappeared.
Whatever your initial strategy is to counter the attack, stick with it. If the campaign fumbles around changing from strategy to strategy, that in itself becomes a story in the media.
Once the campaign has responded, move on. It is tough for talky candidates to be quiet about the subject, but if they are, coverage of the scandal usually diminishes.