How negative campaigning works and doesn’t work

Well does negative campaigning work or not? That was the question the blog was asked about a number of statements made recently about negative campaigning and the lessons from the last US Presidential campaign.

Essentially the blog said that campaign showed that negative campaigning didn’t work in that the billions of dollars spent by various right wing groups and individuals, mainly on advertising, didn’t unseat Obama. On the other hand there is a fair amount of academic research which suggests negative campaigning does work although the research gets simplified by the time political players and the media get involved.

What the research says is that negative campaigning works best when it is used to define a candidate before the candidate has a chance to define themselves. In the case of the US Presidential election it was not so much that both sides used negative campaigning but rather that the Republicans defined themselves before the election even arrived. Thus the primary campaigns featured most candidates making more and more extreme statements in a bid to appeal to the grassroots Republican primary voters. Then Mitt Romney helped define himself with his fund-raiser speech which was secretly recorded and then leaked. Arguably the secret recording was a form of negative campaigning although it wouldn’t have worked if Romney had not said what he said.

The problem was that lots of Republicans believed things which were scary, wrong or absurd and mainstream voters cottoned on. It is interesting that Romney’s main economic adviser, Glenn Hubbard, has since made some of these views public in his book (with Tim Kane) on why great empires – from Rome to the US – decline. The book says, among other things, that Rome’s decline was in part due to “growth of a welfare state and centralised governance”. The blog hasn’t read the book and, after reading that quote, doesn’t plan to, but The Economist (29/6/13) reviewed it and reproduced the quote. It’s a bit unclear what Hubbard and Kane meant: did the Romans start to treat their slaves too well; have we failed to realise that the split between the eastern and western empires was just a ploy just as (which the Republicans believed at the time) the Sino-Soviet split was simply a communist plot; or, that the civil wars and barbarian invasions were actually about immigration and abortion law?

But it does make one think of something else – negative campaigning has been around for as long as politics and voting, as shown by how good the Greeks and Romans were at it. The Reformation and the 17th century British Civil War featured a lot of negative campaigning through pamphlets, sermons and books. The negative put down was always a feature of British political rhetoric, for instance Disraeli saying Gladstone’s hobbies (chopping down trees not rescuing street s.x workers) were as destructive as his policies. And nothing will ever beat John Wilkes rejoinder to the accusation that he would either die on the gallows or of the pox – “that depends Sir on whether I embrace your principles or your mistress.”

Much 20th century US campaigning was relentlessly negative. The Republican 1928 campaign against the US Presidential candidate, Al Smith, was a good example. Smith was accused of being a drunkard (that was why he was in favour of repealing prohibition); a “N..ger lover” because he opposed lynching; and, as a Catholic, planned to declare Methodist and Baptist marriages illegal and their children illegitimate, according to Hazel Rowley’s Franklin and Eleanor. Rowley also has more on the 1944 campaign when Thomas Dewey “accused (FDR) of corruption, treachery and lies. He was harbouring a Communist wife, and was clearly protecting his four sons, none of whom had died at the front.”  Treachery was a long-time Republican favourite and Harry Truman never forgave Nixon for suggesting he was a traitor. And the dangers of Catholicism have now been replaced in the US, Australia and the UK by accusations about secret plans to introduce sharia law. When the right confronted a real socialist, such as Upton Sinclair in his 1934 campaign to become Californian Governor, the campaign was probably the most negative in history and pioneered many of the techniques used today.

Today negative campaigning, of the really vicious sort, tends to be mainly online rather than word of mouth as in 1928 and 1944. Julia Gillard, of course, was subject to really vicious campaigns both online and in most other forums just as Sinclair was in 1934.  But all Australian Labor Governments also face an inbuilt negative framing from the tide of opinion and news from the Murdoch media, business leaders and the Liberals about debt, deficits and public spending.The result – Liberal negative campaigning on economic management merely plays to a negative perception which was framed before the debates and campaign even began.

The claim that negative campaigning works is, therefore, both true but not entirely true while also being more complex than it appears. Thus, it is a good subject for academic study. What does seem clear though is that you need to get in first. Whether by defining the other side or by pre-empting the campaign with positive messages such as Roosevelt’s inaugural address statement that “This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself-nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

Sadly neither Rudd nor Abbott are FDR.