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.



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As much at home writing editorials as being the subject of them, Cam has won awards, including the Canon Media Award for his work on the Len Brown/Bevan Chuang story. When he’s not creating the news, he tends to be in it, with protagonists using the courts, media and social media to deliver financial as well as death threats.

They say that news is something that someone, somewhere, wants kept quiet. Cam Slater doesn’t do quiet and, as a result, he is a polarising, controversial but highly effective journalist who takes no prisoners.

He is fearless in his pursuit of a story.

Love him or loathe him, you can’t ignore him.

To read Cam’s previous articles click on his name in blue.