With the elections just around the corner, media campaigns are pulling out all the stops. All too often that means negative campaign advertisements. It’s nothing new and it’s not necessarily worse than than in the past despite protests to the contrary.
Negative campaign ads are here to stay because they are effective. Many readers will protest that mud slinging ads don’t work and actually turn off voters. This is also true. But negative campaign ads are effective with apathetic voters. Mud slinging succeeds in motivating otherwise disinterested Americans into voting against a certain candidate rather than for another.
New York Times‘ Ross Douthat wrote about the presidential campaign this week in Mr. Negative vs. Mr. Complacent. He discusses what many have termed the harsh campaign President Obama is running this year. The president is what Douthat terms “Mr. Negative.” Douthat argues his campaign “started out negative and has escalated to frank character assassination.”
Both Obama and Romney are guilty of negative campaigning, however. Romney ads have taken the president’s words out of context on many hot button issues. Nancy Cordes of CBS News reports, “one ad shows Mr. Obama saying when he was seeking the White House the first time, ‘If we keep talking about the economy, we’re going to lose.’ That was actually him quoting something John McCain, his opponent at the time, had said.”
Why negativity effective in engaging Americans? University of Wisconsin Madison political scientist Kenneth Goldstein wrote a book about it—Campaign Advertising and American Democracy. In the book, he argues that negative campaigns contribute to a health democracy because they succeed in engaging voters. Goldstein says that much of the criticism regarding negative advertising is rooted in the incorrect assumption that Americans are easily manipulated. But the reality is that fewer people seem willing to do their own research and really depend upon ads to inform.
It may be hard to believe, but studies show negative ads help win political campaigns. Refraining from negativity speaks volumes about character, however. How will voters respond this election? Critical thinkers must see through these tactics, do their own research and vote of the facts.