The reason is simple. They work. The US is just four weeks away from the first presidential primary elections and the year of campaigning for the November 2012 presidential elections has started. Professor John Geer, professor of political science at Vanderbilt University and author of In Defense of Negativity: Attack Advertising in Presidential Campaigns states a very good case for why we should overlook the incivility of negative campaigns ads.
The reality is that politics is a rough-and-tumble game, and campaigns are pitched battles for control of the government. The stakes are often high, and the competition is usually fierce. Attack ads may be uncivil, but what’s so important about civility when the future of the country is at stake? They may constitute scare tactics, but fear also may be appropriate. The real issue should not be the tone of an ad but whether the information presented is useful to voters.
For one thing, negative ads are much more likely to discuss issues than positive ads. The general view is that negative ads are just personal attacks. That is wrong. And even when the attacks do get personal, more than three-quarters of them deal with the issues of experience or honesty pieces of information that are important and relevant when selecting a president.
Negative ads are also much more likely to be buttressed by evidence than positive ads. Candidates can talk about supporting a strong national defense. Negative ads have to go further. It was not credible for Kerry simply to claim that the president’s policies were weakening national defense; he needed to demonstrate just how Bush’s policies undermined our security. Candidates face a burden of proof when they go on the attack.
The simple fact is that if negativity were to disappear from our electoral battles, so would our claim to being a democratic nation.
It is worth it to read the entire LA Times op ed piece by Professor John Geer. NPR also has a segment interviewing Geer http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5359586
But what does Miss Manners have to say about negative political campaigning?
Dear Miss Manners,
I am currently running for an elected position in my community. At this stage in the game, people are starting to ask questions about how I feel about my opponent and his background. Because he and I have worked together in the past, I know what a bad leader he is.
I would like to run a campaign devoid of rude comments, but I of course am bombarded with questions from voters and the press. How do I politely express myself towards this other person?
Respectfully. You would be surprised how many candidates have lost by being treated respectfully.
But before you thank Miss Manners for nudging you to throw the election, please allow her to explain a dynamic of which every other politician seems to be unaware. That is that politeness helps, not hinders, in skewering an opponent.
When an opposing candidate calls his rival a cheat and a liar, voters tend to figure that oh, well, they both are, that’s just the way politicians talk. If you say what a nice person your opponent is, only unfortunately misguided on certain key issues and stymied when it comes to getting things done, they may actually listen to the rest of what you have to say. http://lifestyle.msn.com/Relationships/Article.aspx?cp-documentid=8319061
Note that she does not advise the Gentle Reader to not make mention of his opponent’s leadership deficits but rather advises HOW he does it.
Comment away, readers, however please note that I will not approve comments which attack specific political parties or candidates.
December 16, 2011 Addendum: Miss Manners column on rude politicians and her suggestion that the way to deal with them is to vote them out of office.