The 2012 presidential election campaign by Mitt Romney aired an advertisement called “Doing Fine” that attacked President Obama by stating that the president has no idea about the economic condition of the country. This advertisement is a perfect example of a straightforward attack on President Obama and his ignorance of the economic realities of the country. As the political campaign for the 2016 elections begin, Americans await negative rhetorical speeches, rude personal attacks, and negative propaganda on television and in other media.
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Political speeches in 2016 have dominated personal mockeries, name-calling, mudslinging, and backbiting. Ted Cruze, during his Iowa campaign openly talked of the baseless rumor that Ben Carson was dropping out of the presidential race and aired an advertisement mocking Marco Rubio called “just another pretty face”. In a Republican Party debate, Donald Trump, known for his abusive and vulgar language, called Amy Lindsey a liar, when she said she was a “middle class working girl”.
These examples of recent negative campaign in the US would make people wonder at the fall of the character of presidential candidates and their un-presidential language and conduct. Evidently, negative campaign entails a candidate engages in propaganda that attacks the opponent instead of propagating his peculiar positive attributes, in order to win the election. The obvious question that comes to one’s mind is, if negative campaigns are new to the Americans.
As much as one would like to believe that these are the new occurrence in American politics, but a look into the past election campaigns of respected presidents would show that their campaigns were no better. In reality, the presidential campaigns of slander and incivilities began with Thomas Jefferson and John Adams but became nastiest in the campaign of John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson during the 1882 presidential campaign. Raising issues related to the opponent’s character, marital infidelity, tax evasion charges often raise character issues to the voters. Negative advertisement and propaganda dominate the American presidential campaigns throughout history.
Dirty personal attacks, foul language, and false speculations dominate the content of political speech, debate, and advertisements. Often such slander is defended as the “truth” and rhetoric like the “people deserve to know, ” and they seldom openly admit to such negative campaigning. Such negative campaigns are strategies employed by the candidates to lessen the popularity of the opponent.
Political scientists believe that the political campaigns have become increasingly mean-spirited1. One of the main reasons for the rise may be the increasing success of negative campaign on candidate’s electoral rating. The questions that arise from the above discussion of the prevalence of negative campaign is, if the degree of incivility in election campaigns in America has reached a new low or were the foundation of such actions created in the historical annals of presidential campaigns? Are negative campaigns really becoming increasingly mean over time? When George Washington was elected the first American President, he was the unanimous choice, receiving the votes of all 132 electors.
In 1796, after eight years in Washington, America was its first exposure to a true campaign during the second Presidential election. Did a profound ideological difference degenerate into monstrous forms of mudslinging and backstabbing? In this essay, we study the old and the recent presidential campaigns and critically analyze the strategies, tactics, and propaganda used for negative campaigning to determine if it has changed over time.
Here ‘strategy’ refers to the decisions regarding particular issues and if they should be used as a mean of attacking the opponent2. “Tactics” refers to the responsibilities that are taken once a strategy is decided upon3. In other words, tactics is how the strategy is implemented in the campaign process to the maximum advantage of the candidate.
This paper answers the question if the negative election campaigns have always been a part of election campaigns in America since the late eighteenth century. The idea that the presidential campaigns have become increasingly negative is just a myth. In reality, it has always been negative and personal attacks have dominated election campaigns. This paper does a comparative analysis of the election campaigns to understand the degree of negativity in presidential election campaigns in America.
Research on negative campaigning in American politics has been extant, however, mostly they have concentrated on the effect of the campaigns45. However, this paper attempts to trace the evolution of negative campaigning since its inception and how they have changed (for better or for worse). The literature in this area is limited. Altschuler and Blumin6, and David Mark7 have contributed in this area of research. Previous research has suggested that politics has historically been rough8.
Susan Herbst suggests a decline in civility in American politics and states, “Most scholars and writers … bemoan a decline of civility in American politics and social life, [which] is a shame, since so many historians have documented phenomena to disprove this view, such as the horrendous dirty presidential campaigns of the past”9. Shea and Sproveri identifies the period when there was a rise in in the uncivil rhetoric in presidential campaign fit the phase when the critical realignment period10. Researchers are divided in their point of view regarding the evolution of negative campaign.
Some believe it has increased over time11, some believe that it has remained unchanged over time12, and while others believe that there are fluctuations in negative campaign in the US. This leaves a discrepancy in previous researches. This research will try to establish how the negative campaign has evolved over time in US presidential elections. Moreover, earlier researches that studied the evolution of negative campaign either worked with a limited period13 14 15 or employed a tool that may not be wholly reliable, as they have used a tool that searches only books16.
However, an overall analysis in the area is missing. This paper analyzes the current and the past presidential campaigns, especially based on the newspaper reporting of negative campaigning and tries to understand the way it has changed.
Negative Campaigns – Past and Present
In the present 2016 presidential election primaries, rampant mudslinging have marked campaigns of various candidates like Trump, Cruze, Clinton, Sanders and so on. Nick Corasaniti from the New York Times broke down the messages of the advertisement campaigns of the 2016 primaries17. Given the definition of negative campaign, which tries to demean the opponent other than projecting oneself, the paper segregates the positive and negative advertisement campaigns. We analyze 51 advertisements – television or online video commercials.
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The figure below (figure 1) shows that there are 27 out of 51 advertisements, which can be delineated as negative campaigns. This number points at the prevalence of negative campaign in the 2016 primary campaigns, which amounts to 51%. These advertisements have attacked the candidate’s opponents directly and have said something scandalous about them. This analysis does not talk of the newspaper articles that have printed the reports of the debates and the speeches that made direct attacks on other candidates.
Now we look at the strategy involved in these attacks. We find these negative advertisements can be divided into two categories. First are those advertisements that promote issues based attack on the opponent. Second, campaigns are designed to attack the opponent without any issue. It we look at the Ted Cruz advertisement attacking Hillary Clinton, it is a strategy to associate himself with the “working class” America by calling his opponents “elitist.” The strategy is clear.
He wants the voters to relate to his middle class background, a man who came up from humble working class family, unlike Clinton, who was a former first lady and Trump who was the father of an industrialist. On 8 March 2016, advertisements by Donald Trump’s camp accused Marco Rubio of corruption.
Apparently, there is no political message in the advertisement and uses only slander and accusation as a means to demean his Republican opponent. More than twenty-five percent of the advertisements reviewed in this section are direct personal attacks slandering the character of the opponent. Similar advertisements, which have no issue related message, attack the character of the opponents. Out of the 4 ads in the sample by Hillary Clinton, only one has a negative tone.
Analyzing the advertisement contents based on the issue and tone of the message, we categorized them into seven groups – domestic policy, domestic performance, personal quality, foreign policy, international affairs, campaign appeals, and opponent’s character with no issue. The analysis demonstrates that most of the advertisement in 2016 primaries (38.5%) was attacks on the opponent with no political issue as a message.
The percentage of negative ads based on the issues the deals with are as follows: campaign appeal (1.9%), domestic policy (5.8%), international affairs (7.7%), and foreign policy (1.9%). The largest share of negative advertisements is that of attack on the opponents without any political issue (36.5%). Evidently, most of the advertisements attacked the opponent’s character rather than talking about real issues. For example, an advertisement calls Donald Trump “misogynist, ” “jerk, ” and “hippo.”
Further, Marco Rubio is called “corrupt” and “cronyism.” His immigration status has been questioned in more than one ad. Thus, the campaign ads for the primaries have shown a definite inclination towards a direct attack on the opponent and their character instead of concentrating on the relevant issues. Probably this is for this reason that many newspapers are calling this campaign the dirtiest of all. However, before we adjudge 2016 primary campaigns, it is imperative to understand if the campaigns have reached a new low in terms of attack ads or if they were the case earlier too.
Negative political advertising from 1952 to 2016 has been demonstrated in figure 2. An increase in the percentage of negative advertisements as a percentage of the total number of advertisements shows the country is becoming increasingly malicious during its election campaigns. In the decades of the fifties negative detriments have been below 40% of total ads. The earliest known negative ad was aired in 1952 that showed the republicans as keeping a double standard.
However, after 1960, it started growing and reached 40% in the 1964 campaign. Negative ads reached a height in 1988. However, a 1964 ad called “Daisy,” made by Lyndon B. Johnson’s camp to show that Barry Goldwater would begin a nuclear war if elected president. In 1972 and 1976, the use of negative ads declined during the Carter-Ford contest. However, it started increasing since 1980 during the campaign of Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan.
During this campaign, Carter sponsored advertisements that showed Reagan as someone unprepared to assume the reigns of the country. These advertisements directly raised the question about Reagan’s judgment and insight, trying to undermine the latter. The maximum share of negative attack was in the 1988 campaign. During this campaign, the Republicans used the Willie Horton ad showed a convicted murdered who rapped and robbed a couple, used racism against Michael Dukakis.
In 1992, Ross Perot made a retort ad to attack Bill Clinton’s campaign about job growth with the aid of data from Arkansas. In a 1996 campaigns, the Republicans attacked the Democrats for being “too liberal.” In a 2000 advertisements portrayed Gore as a partisan. The 2004 Bush campaign branded John Kerry a “flip-flopper” due to his alleged indecisions. In 2008 advertisements, McCain directly declared that Obama was not prepared to lead the country and stood for higher taxes and more government spending. As a retort to this slander, Obama compared McCain to Bush and accused the former of proposing to cut Medicare. A 2012 ad showed Obama’s trade policy was to allow outsourcing to China.
Though in this section we have spoken only about the ads became famous (or infamous) because of their negative content and/or connotation. These ads are examples of direct attacks hurled on the opponent’s proposed policy or vision. For instance, ‘Daisy’ attacked Goldwater’s perceived policy of increased militarization. Similarly, the Horton ad helped the Republican candidate to play on the fear of rising black criminals in society of the white conservative America.
However, there has been a strategy behind each of these ads. Even though Horton and Daisy are considered one of the best effective negative ads, they were not purely character attacks on the opponents like the flip-flop ad made to mock Kerry. However, the 2016 ads show more negativity as they are more personal and direct attack on the opponent’s character, with no policy issue related to it. For instance, calling Trump a “jerk” or a “hippo” without any related issue actually is a blatant attack on his personality. Further, most ads by candidates that do not talk of any policy issue. Instead, they directly malign the opponent.
For instance, the immigration slander against Rubio shows that he will allow illegal immigrants from Mexico who will in turn take away all American jobs. Unemployment has been a sensitive issue since the 2008 financial slowdown and the issue of immigrants is important for two issues – immigrant labor and terrorism. Hence, painting a candidate close to the immigrants is almost equating him with the illegal immigrant workers and terrorists who come inside the country.
Further, in the 2012 campaign, 86% of Obama’s ads and 79% of Romney’s ads were negative. Whereas, if these are compared to the candidate scores in 2008, Obama has only 43.2% negative ads as compared to his opponent McCain who had 49.2% of such ads. In 2004, Bush aired the maximum number of negative ads (55.4%) as opposed to Kerry who aired only 2.7% of negative ads. So, why did President Obama need so many negative ads to increase his ranking in the polls when he had proposed some excellent policies in health care and economic rebound? The reason is the aim of political campaigns is to undermine the opponent in order to show oneself in positive light.
Thus, candidates use the government’s performances as a tool to attack them or raise a question regarding policy issues. For instance, the “Revolving Door” ad aired by Bush stated that the Dukakis, as a Governor, had vetoed against death penalty and mandatory sentence for drug dealers. Bush criticizes this policy in the “revolving door” advertisement: “As governor, Michael Dukakis vetoed mandatory sentences for drug dealers. He vetoed the death penalty. His revolving door prison policy gave weekend furloughs to first-degree murders not eligible for parole.”19 Researchers agree that negative ads are more likely to have policy related content20.
This is what they have understood from their studying of the past ad campaigns. However, in 2016, most of the negative ads are non-issue related, thus making them more accusatory and maligning. They are personal attacks on character of the opponent or their immigration status or their personal character. They are more direct, as these ads camouflage behind the garb of political issues.
Speech and Debate
Donald Trump has captured the media attention with his negative statements and rhetoric about most of his opponents, irrespective of their party. Trump has played almost all the dirty tricks mentioned in the history of campaigning. Presidential debates are the stage wherein the candidates can ask the most uncomfortable questions to their opponents. Thus, the performances of the candidates in the national debates televised are important as they show the real character, beyond the trick of the camera. It is common to hear the candidate attacking the incumbent bitterly over policy issues and even making character related accusations.
Even though political commentaries call such speeches “nastiest,” “dirtiest,” or “filthiest” but such accusations and slanders are common in the history of American election campaigns. In the 2000 campaign, McCain accused Bush of creating a push poll that indicted the former of being a liar and a cheat and implied that he may have fathered a colored child. In 2012 campaign, Obama accused Romney of being “reckless,” “absurd,” and “beneath the dignity of the presidency.” In the present 2016 campaign, Trump has accused Cruz of not being a natural born citizen of America, a fact that would disqualify the latter from the presidential race. Personal attacks and slandering the opponent’s character is a commonplace thing in political campaigns.
Strategy and Tactics
Negativity in speeches of political leaders to slander his/her opponent is common practice. Why are such negative campaigns used and why have they become so popular? First, it should be noted that these slander attacks are not a recent phenomenon. They have been practiced during election campaigns since Jefferson and Adams. In 1800, during the presidential campaign, both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson employed negative campaign tactics to undermine the credibility of his opponent.
Jefferson was slandered for being a person, if elected, would legalize prostitution and a newspaper blew this news out of proportion and turned Jefferson into the master who would legalize all kinds of crime. As retaliation, Jefferson used the help of a journalist to print a pamphlet that accused Adams of being a hypocrite and a hermaphrodite. In 1872 elections, a pamphlet circulated supporting Ulysses S. Grant accused Horace Greeley of corruption and despotism.
In 1884, Grover Cleveland was accused of having an illegitimate child. This tradition of slander and mudslinging has been a part of the American presidential campaigns since the time of our founding fathers. The negative campaigns have always been a means to undermine the credibility of the opponent.
Political debates are usually filled with accusations of the opponent’s shortcomings, or slander on the character based on misplaced rumors. The question that arises is why should they be adopted in the first pace. It must be understood that not all negative campaigns are bad. Political parties and candidate’s resort to negative campaigns because they work. In a way, they attract more attention to the policies than positive ads that shows the candidate’s visions and ideas.
However, it is through the negative ads that the true policies and strategies of the government are discussed. Criticism is important in political arena as this allows the scope for a meaningful debate. However, what is not desirable is what Adams and Jefferson did in the early days of the nation formation. Mudslinging is deplorable. However, it is still used by many politicians.
Negative campaigns are strategies. Strategies are the outlook of the campaign. For instance, Donald Trump. Like most Republicans, he is against gun control and therefore, he argues that there could have been fewer mortality in the Paris attack if a few of the people attacked by the terrorists had guns. In other words, they had the tool to defend themselves. In another case, Trump questions Cruz’s nationality status.
Cruz is probably one of the closest opponents that Trump wants to topple. In order to win the nomination of the party, he had to beat Cruz, along with others. Cruz posed a serious danger to his nomination race and in order to squash the opponent, he spread the rumor that Cruz may not be eligible to become the president, as he was not a natural born citizen of the country. This strategy was simply to undermine the credibility of the opponent, as he too knew that this slander could not be legally proved.
In another instance, Trump is called a misogynist by a campaign wherein the ad shows how he had verbally abused women and recently there were accusations against trump of sexual harassment. Such strong negative campaign against a candidate could ruin his prospects of being the president. Thus, negative ads are usually used as a strategy to undermine the philosophy, vision, or character of the opponent. They can be implied or overt. Such campaigns serve two purposes – first, weaken the opponent’s position, and second, show the voters what the candidate stands for. For instance, in “Daisy” Goldwater was projected as a candidate who, if elected, would start a nuclear race.
Therefore, this showed that Goldwater was not a desirable candidate for becoming the president. Moreover, this ad also forwarded Lyndon Johnson’s stand on foreign policy as anti-war. Similarly, the Willie Horton ad played on white people’s fear of colored anti-socials. This ad undermined Dukakis as being pro-African Americans and Bush, the Republican nominee, as a strong administrator who will keep the anti-socials behind bars. Similar message was sent by the ‘Revolving door’ campaign by Bush against Dukakis. Therefore, the negative ads always have a strategy and a tactics to undermine the opponent as well as speak of the candidate’s visions.
Mudslinging in election campaigns can be traced back to the founding ancestors of our nations. Therefore, it would be wrong to suggest that negative campaigning is a product of spread of mass media like television, social media, and so on. Political commentators often express their disgust about the negative campaigns and call it the worst, meanest, dirtiest campaign in the annals of history. However, research has shown that the campaign that has used the maximum negative advertisements was done in 1988.
This creates a discrepancy in popular belief and research findings. While discussing negative advertisements, it should be noted that they help to put forth a lot of information that otherwise would become just a statement. The main aim of a candidate is to win the election. In order to do so, he employs certain strategies to build his case in front of the voters. These strategies are his ideas, visions about the country, and policies. These policies and visions attract a group of people.
His opponent’s visions and policies may not be the same as his. Therefore, the tactics he uses is to undermine the policies of the opponent in order to make his sound better to the voters. In order to make himself stand out from the crowd, he has to create an inferior other, in front of whom he will gain precedence. Hence, he derides the policies of the opponent, points out the flaws in his opponent’s strategies, such that he will sound better to the voters.
This is what presidential campaigns are all about. The aim is to make the candidate look better than the rest of the contestants and garner maximum support. However, this explanation is not enough to support the mudslinging or personal attacks on the opponent’s character. The purpose is same that is to undermine the character of the opponent. However, one can say that such means are unnecessary. Nevertheless, such tactics have been employed by the founding fathers of the United States and have been practiced ever since. When the opponent is painted as an undesirable, the candidate immediately becomes the forerunner in the race.
This is what he intends to do when he derides the other of being malicious, corrupt, misogynist, or a flip-flop. Hence, we may conclude that negative advertisements are not a new phenomenon in the history of American presidential elections. Further, the campaigns are not becoming increasingly negative as previous election statistics shows that there has been a rise and fall in the share of negative advertisements in election campaigns. The campaigns have become exceedingly negative as candidates attack any loophole in their opponent’s policies and strategies. However, the increasing number of personal attacks, character maligning, and rumors in campaigns may turn the campaigns even nastier.
Altschuler, Glenn C., and Stuart M. Blumin. Rude Republic and their POlitics in the Nineteenth Century. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000.
Corasaniti, Nick. “The Ad Campaign,”New York Times, 2016. Web.
Cummins, Joseph. “This is the Dirtiest Presidential Race Since ’72.” Politico, 2016. Web.
Herbst, Susan. Rude Democracy: Civility and Incivility in American Politics. Philadelphia, Pensylvania: Temple University Press, 2010.
Lau, Richard R., Lee Sigelman, and Ivy Brown Rovner. “The Effects of Negative Political Campaigns: A Meta-Analytic Reassessment.” The Journal of Politics 69, no.4 (2007): 1176–1209.
Mark, David. Going Dirty: The Art of Negative Campaigning. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers , 2009.
Shea, Daniel M., and Alex Sproveri. “The Rise and Fall of Nasty Politics in America.” Political Science & Politics 45, no. 03 (2012): 416-421.
Sigelman, Lee, and Jr. Emmett H. Buell. “You Take the High Road and I’ll Take the Low Road? The Interplay of Attack Strategies and Tactics in Presidential Campaigns.” The Journal of Politics 65 no.2 (2003): 518-531.
West, Darrell M. Air Wars: Television Advertising and Social Media in Election Campaigns, 1952-2012. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2013.
- Richard R. Lau, Lee Sigelman, and Ivy Brown Rovner, “The Effects of Negative Political Campaigns: A Meta-Analytic Reassessment ,” The Journal of Politics 69, no.4 (2007): 518.
- Lee Sigelman and Jr. Emmett H. Buell, “You Take the High Road and I’ll Take the Low Road? The Interplay of Attack Strategies and Tactics in Presidential Campaigns,” The Journal of Politics 65 no.2 (2003): 518-9.
- Sigelman and Buell, “You Take the High Road,” 519.
- Sigelman and Buell, “You Take the High Road,” 519.
- Lau, Sigelman, and Rovner, “The Effects of Negative Political Campaigns,” 519.
- Glenn C. Altschuler and Stuart M. Blumin, Rude Republic and their Politics in the Nineteenth Century (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000), 10-57.
- David Mark, Going Dirty: The Art of Negative Campaigning (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers , 2009), 71-83.
- Sigelman and Buell, “You Take the High Road,” 520.
- Susan Herbst, Rude Democracy: Civility and Incivility in American Politics (Philadelphia, Pensylvania: Temple University Press, 2010), 23-24.
- Daniel M. Shea and Alex Sproveri, “The Rise and Fall of Nasty Politics in America,” Political Science & Politics 45, no. 03 (2012): 416.
- Mark, Going Dirty, 32.
- Herbst, Rude Democracy, 25.
- Altschuler and Blumin, Rude Republic, 27.
- Herbst, Rude Democracy, 27.
- Mark, Going Dirty, 33.
- Shea and Sproveri, “The Rise and Fall,” 417.
- Nick Corasaniti, “The Ad Campaign,” New York Times. 2016. Web.
- Darrell M. West, Air Wars: Television Advertising and Social Media in Election Campaigns, 1952-2012 (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2013), 72.
- West, Air Wars, 70.
- West, Air Wars, 72.