Montana Viewpoint
Negative campaigning has a very long history

October 30, 2006

Each election cycle we Americans are treated to “the dirtiest, most negative campaign ever.” We either have a pretty short memory or a knack for forgetting unpleasant things, but negative political campaigns have been around for a long time. Of course, the sheer volume of communication allowed, first by radio, then TV, and now the internet probably tends to heighten our awareness of candidate trashing.

Witness the election of 1884 between Grover Cleveland and James G. Blaine. Blaines camp discovered that Cleveland had had a child through an illicit liaison with a widow while he was mayor of Buffalo. Immediately—or as immediately as the times allowed—Blaine’s supporters coined the slogan, “Ma, Ma, wheres my Pa?”

Clevelands group retaliated with calling Blaine “the continental liar from the State of Maine,” because of his allegedly corrupt business practices. They also had a pretty nifty retort to the “Ma, Ma” thing too: “Gone to the White House, ha ha, ha,” which is what eventually happened.

Newspapers in the 1800s were apparently devoid of any ethical restrictions on what they would print; in fact, slander was a pretty good method of selling newspapers, which were often controlled by political machines with vested interests.

Political scientists study this stuff pretty heavily, and seem to be of different opinions as to how or if it works. Conventional wisdom holds, as did I, that the object of negative campaigning is to convince voters that the target is unethical, immoral, and the incarnation of political extremism. Once convinced, voters will either vote for the least awful candidate or, equally valuable, not vote at all.

But while the political science experiments challenge that perception, there are no clear cut results to show one way or another. Sometimes candidates who use negative advertising win, sometimes they lose. What is clear is that while the American public doesnt like them, to put it mildly, they are influenced by them.

There are different levels of “negative campaigning,” too. Is it negative to point out an incumbents voting record or campaign contributors? I think that depends on how its phrased. Voters have a right to know how candidates differ on issues, and when those differences are politely brought forward I think its for the best.

But most often candidates are not treated with respect by the other side, and portrayed to be purposefully deceptive, crooked, or just plain dumb.

There are also candidates who have kept to the high ground only to have negative advertisements distributed by a third party over whom they have no control. That happens more often than we would think—or like. Its perfectly legal for a political party or an individual to pay for an attack ad that their own candidate knows absolutely nothing about. A fellow would expect that coming from an enemy, but coming from a “friend” it can be pretty disheartening.

Mostly Americans are good honest people who dont really relish hearing negative comments about their neighbors. We dont want to hear them, we dont want to believe them; but if we hear them often enough an long enough, we come to believe them. In short, our minds are changed.

History is full of famous sayings about the business of portraying things in a particular way. One is “rumor becomes perception, and perception becomes fact,” but the most famous and most accurate was coined by the evil genius who was Hitlers Minister of Propaganda: “repetition is truth.”

Jim Elliott
Phone: 406-444-1556
Mail: State Senate Helena, MT 59620