Negative campaigning isn’t simply a random tactic that has proved to be effective for selected politicians. It’s part of a broader strategy of “pseudo-competition” between two major ecosystems battling for supremacy, power and money. These Democratic and Republican ecosystems encompass the RNC, the DNC, state party organizations, candidates, Super PACs, think tanks, consultants, lobbyists, media outlets, aligned special interests, etc.
Negativity is a Tactic Within Pseudo-Competition
The current approach to winning elections is almost diametrically opposed to the requirements of good governance. A system of genuine competition would entail competing for workable solutions to our country’s most intractable problems. The strategy of pseudo-competition between the two major parties serves as an effective distraction from a systemic lack of accountability in politics. And negativity is an essential part of this system.
Super PACs on Both Sides are Dominant & Have Gone Negative
We know that money in politics is a problem, especially the dark money flowing through Super political action committees (PACs). The list of the 11 biggest super-PAC donors comprises five Republicans, five Democrats and former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, who previously had declared himself a political independent and this month registered as a Democrat.
The table below tabulates the number of negative broadcast television ads by “dark money” (e.g. Super PACS) for congressional House and Senate races over the last three election cycles.Michelle Obama may still be exhorting Democrats to “go high” (“When they go low, we go high”), but that isn’t where the Democratic Super PAC money is going.
The table shows that in 2018 viewers were exposed to a historic number of negative TV ads and, for the first time, the majority of them came from Democratic dark money. Just four short years ago, Republicans accounted for 80 percent of negative broadcast ads.
Case Example: Dark Money & Dirty Tactics Against Roy Moore
In Alabama, when it seemed that Democrat Doug Jones could actually beat embattled Republican Roy Moore in a special elections race in 2017, a new super PAC (Highway 31) appeared just one month before election day, spending $5.1 million to attack Moore. Using a legal loophole, Highway 31 didn’t disclose the identity of its donors until a month after the election. (Funding was provided by three national level Democratic-aligned entities).
Those millions allowed Highway 31 to relentlessly attack Moore over accusations that he molested children. The dark money also helped propel Jones to an improbable victory in one of the nation’s more conservative states.
But things didn’t stop there. Dark money also worked to deter suburban white voters from voting for Moore by falsely associating him with a bogus Twitter campaign to ban alcohol sales in Alabama. This news followed reporting by the New York Times that a tech billionaire’s money was used to link Moore’s campaign to Russian bots on Twitter.
Since the Citizens United decision in 2010, Republicans have historically taken advantage of dark money more than Democrats, although that is now reversed, as shown in the table above.
The difference with Republicans is that eliminating dark money isn’t part of its party platform. Few Republicans actively advocate for more stringent campaign finance reforms.
As noted by a spokesperson from the Campaign Legal Center, “We support campaign finance reform, but we need to set some of these principles aside because the stakes are so high [in this particular case.]”
Why the Politics of Fear Works
The politics of fear works. Looking beyond politics, the mass communication of negative ideas has been effective in highlighting the health risks of drug abuse, tobacco use and drunk driving.
“People react to fear, not love. They don’t teach that in Sunday school, but it’s true.” – Richard M. Nixon
Presenting people with an alleged threat to their well-being will elicit a powerful emotional response that can override reason. Although it isn’t a new phenomenon, modern media simply makes it much easier to fear-monger.
“All you have to do to secure a Republican vote is to show lots of pictures of gay people kissing or black kids with their pants pulled down or Mexican babies in an emergency room. Then you push forward some dingbat like Michele Bachmann or Sarah Palin to reassure everyone that the Republican Party knows who the real Americans are. Call it the ’Rove 1-2.” Matt Taibbi, The GOP is Now Officially the Party of Dumb White People, Rolling Stone 2015.
Notable Fear Campaigns
Daisy Girl (1964). “Daisy Girl” is an ad by the Lyndon B. Johnson presidential campaign that portrayed Republican Barry Goldwater as threatening nuclear war.
Willie Horton (1988). Willie Horton gained notoriety in a pointed political ad that played on racist fears. “By the time we’re finished,” said Lee Atwater, who managed Bush’s campaign in 1988, “they’re going to wonder whether Willie Horton is Dukakis’ running mate.”
Bush Wolves Ad (2004). The Bush-Cheney campaign portrayed John Kerry as being weak on protecting America, even after the 9/11 attacks.
The Role of Push Polls
The push poll is a form of telemarketing-based propaganda masquerading as an opinion poll. They rely on negative innuendo, often containing suggestions not stated as facts.
Question: “Would you be more or less likely to vote for Governor Richards if you know that lesbians dominated her staff?” (1994: George W. Bush against Texas Governor incumbent Ann Richards)
Question: “Would you be more or less likely to vote for John McCain for president if you knew he had fathered an illegitimate black child?” (2000: George W. Bush against Senator John McCain)
Question: “Do you believe that the mainstream media unfairly reported on President Trump’s executive order temporarily restricting people entering our country from nations compromised by radical Islamic terrorism?” (2017: GOP supporting Donald Trump, attacking mainstream media)
Push polls are relatively expensive compared to internet and broadcast media. As a result, they are used more commonly in elections with fewer voters, such as party primaries or in close elections where a small change in votes can make the difference between victory or defeat.
Why are Negative Messages More Powerful than Positive Ones?
Negative messages seem to “stick” for two reasons:
Reason 1: Negative information is more memorable than positive information. Just think how clearly you remember an insult. Negative information gets “stuck” in our minds even if we don’t like an ad or agree with its contents.
Reason 2: Over time, a negative message tends to become disassociated from its sponsor. Immediately upon hearing an attack ad, you might dismiss it as being “just politics.” Then, typically several weeks later when you are making your voting decision, something in your mind recollects the negative information. You have forgotten when or where or from whom you heart it – but the negative content “stuck.”
Is There Hope?
As long as “fear sells,” it will be used as a tactic in the game of pseudo-competition. The best hope for “a higher road” lies in the following:
- An electorate that values workable solutions (such as good governance) rather than the low-ball success formula for winning elections. Visit Change the Rules for a comprehensive and balanced approach.
- Providing increased transparently in Super PAC election funding. In today’s elections, the greatest negativity is coming from the dark money behind the Super PACS, not the campaigns themselves. Read our Money in Politics Blog Series Part 1 and Part 2 for recent success passing Anti-Corruption Acts
- Ultimately eliminating Super PACS by overturning the Citizens United ruling. Check out the progress made toward the 28th Amendment