Negative campaigning, American politics, and why it works

Phil Smith explains

Negative campaigning is not inherently bad. It is reasonable to question an opponent’s character, or point out where policy differs from practice.

But it’s popular because it’s effective. It doesn’t even have to be accurate, it just has to align with existing biases, or excuse them.

For an insight into negative campaigns, consider the 2004 US presidential race between John Kerry and George Bush.

A group calling itself Swift Boat Veterans for Truth ran a smear campaign against John Kerry. The evil genius of the attack was that it scuttled Mr Kerry’s key asset – that he was a thrice-decorated naval war hero.

He was portrayed instead as reckless, lying – even cowardly – and an enemy of serving men and women. George W. Bush had himself avoided any active military service, and the Swift Boat claims were discredited – but the smear still worked.

It worked because it wasn’t about the facts; it was about class prejudice.

Mr Kerry was obviously a member of the north-eastern liberal elite. He was an educated rich ponce and he sounded like it. He was ‘one of them’.

Mr Bush was also from an elite family, but he was southern and folksy and – you might say – less obviously educated. He was ‘one of us’.

When the rich ponce gets a medal, average Joes have a sneaking suspicion that he probably didn’t deserve it.

It’s an easy task to make a slur stick – confirmation bias does the job for you. The trick is not to change potential voter’s minds, it’s to provide excuses for them to vote in line with their prejudices.

The three lines of attack against Mrs Clinton are cleverly aimed to undermine two of her strongest defining attributes: her charitable work and her time as Secretary of State. They don’t have to be proven, they only need to be difficult to disprove.

As attacks, they are more effective than the long-standing conspiracy theory that the Clintons have assassinated scores of political enemies. That may excite the true believer but it won’t convince a wavering voter.

The aim is sowing doubt, reinforcing biases, and excusing them. This is especially effective because Mrs Clinton has a crippling underlying weakness in the minds of many voters – she is a woman.

There is a group of people so viscerally opposed to the idea of a black president they can’t even believe Mr Obama is American. Equally, there are voters who would never admit that they are horrified by strong women and appalled at the prospect of a female president. They oppose Hillary Clinton but need an excuse that is not about gender. That reason has become too embarrassing.

We do a lot of negative campaigning here at Whaleoil.  And although the Media party has now caught up, for some time, this blog was one of the only major media sources that would engage in it.

Negative campaigning is a valid and effective tool.  It is easy to defend against:  don’t stuff up, don’t hide any skeletons and don’t lie.

Luckily, that rules out most politicians.



  • Effluent

    “Negative campaigning is a valid and effective tool. It is easy to defend against: don’t stuff up, don’t hide any skeletons and don’t lie.”

    I would say that these rules eliminate almost anyone over the age of 18 who has lived a life of any interest. A few more rules need to be added:

    – When you’re in a hole, stop digging
    – ‘stuff ups’ lie somewhere on the spectrum that lies between honest mistakes and deliberate wrongdoing. If the former, apologise and move on; if the latter, put it right as soon and as fully as you can,
    – Don’t do it again..

    It is in failing to observe these last rules that most politicians examples of reach the ends of their careers.

  • XCIA

    I guess the MSM will come out with a new mantra – “Blessed are the feeble minded”.

  • papagaya

    Negative campaigning by Republicans in recent years has come unstuck because any attempted smear can be swiftly rebutted online. That’s one of the reasons Karl Rove is now one of yesterday’s men. In that sense the internet has been an absolute godsend for all of us. Falsehoods generally have a very short shelf life these days. The Hillary Clinton situation is a little different because she has a hell of a lot of baggage. Negative campaigning will confirm the jaundiced opinions of her among conservatives. But I don’t think it’ll make a hell of a lot of difference to anyone else. She is what she is, and Democrats who don’t like her don’t need any smear campaigns to tell them so. They’ll just sit the election out.

  • JohnO

    Scott Adams points out that voters do not use logic in selecting their preferred candidate but choose on their favourable preference. This is easily and predictably changed for the voting population at large. Trump was very successful with it against “lyin Ted” Cruz in the primaries. And he seems to be successful with it against “crooked Hillary” so far, with a 5% gain in favorability against Hillary in the first month of the campaign with 2 months to go. By zeroing in on the opponents weaknesses and amplifying them people get a negative opinion of them and will not change that despite their nice policies.

    • biscuit barrel

      And when Trump loses ? You forget Clinton has been busy raising heaps more money so she can win the negative campaign.

      • JohnO

        Big money is right behind Hillary and it helps. Even if Hillary does not have to pull out of the race due to ill health ( she has to use a step to get into a car) I still think Trump will win.

  • JLS

    Right on with that last paragraph.

  • biscuit barrel

    Why the Trump negative campaigning wont win him the Presidency ( just the support of some foreigners .
    Stock market last 8 years compared to Regan
    Unemployment Obama V Reagan
    Obama Outperforms Reagan On Jobs, Growth And Investing-

    • hookerphil

      It is certainly getting when I read some posts that I flick back to the top to confirm who has written it – seldom wrong. Me, not the post.

  • Seriously?

    i dispear that anyone thinks that politics comes down to this in NZ. It is he lowest of low. “Accuracy doesn’t matter”. Just make it up. It may work in the US but so far it has failed for the Left here – moment of struth. Long may that continue.