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.