27 August 2008

Positively Negative

squashed wrote:

I don't want to say that all negative ads are categorically "immoral" or even that the perfect campaign would never run a negative ad, but by and large, negative ads hurt America. By their nature they are divisive. They will tarnish the image of the country and impede the eventual winner's ability to govern the entire effectively. That said, there may be a time when a negative ad is necessary to draw a legitimate contrast. Obama and McCain disagree on how the tax burden should be allocated. (Obama would put more on those making over $250,000 a year. McCain would put more on the middle class, the poor, and the next generations who will be stuck with a whole lot of debt.) There's a policy disagreement--and both sides should feel free to promote their views or criticize the other side's, so long as they represent the other side fairly and accurately. But this is the catch. In a debate or situation with dueling press-releases, the other side gets a chance to respond. If I misrepresent your view or your actions, you get a chance to respond--and the audience will probably hear that response. I might say, "He's been seen partying with a number of women. Does his wife know?" You might respond, "Yes, I work in a coed office, and every year we have a lame holiday party." Both statements might be true--and if I unfairly paint you in a bad light, you get to respond. But in advertisements, only the first statement would air. Comments are taken out of context. A vote for or against a gigantic spending bill is construed to imply a stance on some compromise position that made it somewhere into the bill. Sweeping statements are used. Prejudices are played on. There is a place for a fair and honest, though negative, political ad. But an honest political ad requires more than factual accuracy. I don't think I've ever seen a truly honest political ad.

Myths about negative campaign appeals (lifted from a chapter of the excellent "The Political Brain" by Drew Westen):

  1. Campaigns are getting nastier — a study of American political campaign history reveals that campaigns were historically much dirtier affairs, with frequent scurrilous charges made against opposing candidates, in comparison to current times.
  2. Negative campaigning depresses voter turnout — voters are moved by positive or negative emotions.
  3. Negative appeals are unethical — the question is whether or not the ad is accurate or misleading. If the charges are fair, then the airing is essential. The truth needs to be told with emotional clarity. Personal attacks based on purely slander, on the other hand, are deplorable.
  4. Negative appeals are ineffective — every winning campaign in the last century has featured attacks on the opposition.
  5. When negative appeals are made by the other side, they are better left alone — "playing nice" and "taking the high road" creates an uncontested frame that media entities readily adopt, suggest the affected candidate has "something to hide", and emboldens the perpetrator to follow up with another "punch".

Westen writes that the latter three myths in the list have contributed mightily to failed Democratic campaigns. John Kerry, in 2004 bid to unseat George W. Bush, offers a vivid illustration. When confronted with slimeball Rovian tactics like the slanderous Swift Boat lies, the Kerry camp completely ignored the advice of James Carville and Paul Begala (who unlike Bob Shrum's zero-for-seven record in presidential campaigns, were architects of Clinton's success in the 1990s) in conducting their campaign, ignoring the scandalous accusations that were directed at his pronounced strength, his exemplary military service record.

It's hard for your opponent to say bad things about you when your fist is in his mouth.

In addition, their followup defense, once it was determined that damage had been done, was just as weak and ineffectual:

  1. Respond with a flurry of facts and counterarguments — which means you accept your opponent's frame and may only deflect one or a few of the charges levied.
  2. The "he know's that's not true" or "he's lying" tack — turns issue into "he said/she said" debate, that keeps focus on the accused. If you're going to say your opponent is lying, you need to establish lying as a broader story about your opponent's character. It must be centered on who the opponent is, not just a campaign tactic.
  3. "Girlymanspeak" — you don't express sadness or disappointment, you express rage and slug back.
  4. Appeal to the referees (media) or to the other side to "play nice" — this establishes the accused as weak and allows the accuser to milk the message for all it's worth as it will be replayed repeatedly.

Instead, Kerry campaign strategists based their judgment on listening to focus groups, oblivious to the truth that much of political persuasion occurs through changes inaccessible to consciousness. Kerry avoided issues like Abu Ghraib because campaign advisors feared Republican spin of "attack on our trooops". The failure to "go negative" against an incumbent whose behavior in office is deeply immoral or destructive to America's moral authority is itself an ethical failure. I will repeat: The failure to "go negative" against an incumbent whose behavior in office is deeply immoral or destructive to America's moral authority is itself an ethical failure.

Better than a just response to an unfair attack, would be to get there first. The first to make a pitch renders an effort at persuasion more effective. Innoculate by building up "resistance" by forewarning against it or presenting weak arguments in favor of it before the other side presents a stronger version.

Again, this material on negative campaigning was taken from a chapter in "The Political Brain" by Drew Westen, a book that I highly recommend for anyone interested on how the mind works and what this means for why candidates win and lose elections. Especially if you're a Democratic voter who can't figure out why your party loses so many elections despite polls that show most voters favor Democratic positions on most policy issues.


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