The GOP presidential nomination race is mostly a campaign of negative ads. In Utah, out of-state groups like FreedomWorks and Freedom Path are hammering the GOP U.S. Senate candidates with negative advertising. I get all their stuff, since I’m a delegate.
So, does negative advertising work? The answer is yes, no, maybe, and it depends.
Obviously, campaigns and interest groups wouldn’t conduct negative advertising if it didn’t work. At the national level, Mitt Romney has been able to cut various surging opponents down to size with mostly negative advertising.
But just saying it works is too simplistic. Many examples exist, especially in Utah, where negative advertising backfired badly. Negative advertising can also have many flavors, ranging from drawing a strong contrast on key issues to attacking one’s opponent in a very personal way.
So it’s impossible to make a flat statement that negative advertising works or doesn’t work. As in all good communications strategy, a campaign needs to carefully think through what it is trying to accomplish, what its audience is, and what are the best messages to deliver to that audience to achieve campaign objectives.
Does the campaign need to fire up its base? Win support of independent or undecided voters? Or turn some of the opponents’ supporters? Is the candidate behind, even with, or ahead of the opponent? Is the campaign losing badly, in desperate circumstances? Does the opponent have obvious baggage to exploit? Will negative campaigning come across as mean-spirited? Is the campaign prepared for a backlash? Can negative statements be backed up with facts?
In Utah, I’ve seen negative campaigning backfire and hurt more often than help. It’s often very important to draw contrasts, but there’s often a fine line that shouldn’t be crossed.
Here’s a true story: Many years ago, I was campaign manager for Mike Leavitt’s first gubernatorial campaign. We had just made it through the state convention, taking second place behind Richard Eyre. We held a campaign strategy retreat with a good friend, a respected Washington, D.C., campaign consultant. We planned how we would approach the primary election.
We discussed the strengths and weaknesses of Leavitt and Eyre in great detail. Eyre was much better known, had been a media personality, had a great resume, was a solid debater, and was an excellent speaker. After discussing strategy for several hours, the Washington campaign consultant told Leavitt that the race appeared really tough and he didn’t see how Leavitt could win the primary without going negative on Eyre and reducing Eyre’s likeability among voters.
At that point we took a break and Leavitt went outside and went for a walk with his wife, Jackie. When he returned, Leavitt told the strategy group in words very close to these: “Sorry, I won’t go negative. I don’t want to do it and I don’t think I would do it well even if I wanted to do it. It’s not me, it’s not my personality. If I can’t win without going negative, then so be it. But I think we can win, so let’s develop a positive campaign plan and go forward.”
Leavitt didn’t campaign negatively against his opponent and went on to win the primary rather handily.
That is just one campaign experience, of course. It was a Utah race and Leavitt’s instincts were good. The bottom line on negative campaigning is that all aspects must be carefully considered, and executed very well.
In many races, mostly outside of Utah, it’s impossible to avoid negative campaigning. The presidential campaign is already ugly, negative and, in many ways, disgusting, and it’s going to get a lot worse. It won’t just be the candidates. The Super PACs, other surrogates, and partisan commentators will wage the most negative campaign in the country’s history. It will get very personal.
Politics is, unfortunately, a tough business. Not for the faint of heart.