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A lesson from history: Negative ads work

Of all the hundreds of TV advertisements that will run this fall it’s estimated that more than 80% of them will be negative. Of course, there is nothing new in negative campaigning. Each election cycle, we carry on as if it’s a new horror of the American political system, but it’s not. Negative campaigning has been around since the beginning of the republic. They didn’t have television or radio back then, but ask Thomas Jefferson or Abraham Lincoln about negative campaigns, then, in the form of fliers, and editorials, and they will know exactly what you’re talking about. 

Still, no one likes negative campaigns, and many, with good cause, ask why if American’s don’t like them, why are they so popular why the campaigns use this tactic.  A good way to answer that question is to go back in time a bit, to another campaign. It was 1993 and Don Beyer, a Democrat, was running against Republican Michael Farris for re-election. It was going to be a Republican year, that was obvious, and Beyer, trying to get ahead of what would turn out to be a sweep for the Republicans, began running negative ads against his opponent. However, as the campaign entered its final stages, Beyer, perhaps tired of the negative ads himself, switched to more positive ads. These talked about his view, his accomplishments, and why he deserved the support of the voters.

However, Beyer also ran a daily tracking poll. He had, when the negative ads were running, maintained a steady and consistent lead. In spite of the fact that both of his running mates, Mary Sue Terry and Bill Dolan, were lagging badly. But, when he shifted the campaign into positive mode, the tracking polls showed a shift back the other way.  Farris didn’t have much to spend on campaign ads, but he was benefiting from the general Republican surge that year, and his numbers were rising. The Beyer campaign, after some debate, went back on the attack. Their numbers recovered and Beyer was the only Democrat to win statewide.  

The lesson of this story is that negative campaigning, and negative ads work. That’s, why, like it or not, they never seem to go away.  

Curiously, Mitt Romney, now the official GOP nominee, began his quest for the nomination with a decidedly positive campaign. He didn’t go negative against his fellow Republican candidates until they started going after him.  In fact, he had to take some serious electoral hits before his campaign started to catch on. In South Carolina, the rather ruthless campaign waged by Newt Gingrich, which ranged from calling Romney everything from a corporate pirate to a socialist, cost Romney the primary. But, Romney, by then, had figured this negative campaigning business out, and in Florida, his TV campaign, and his speeches, went after the former speaker with a vengeance and it worked. In later primaries, Romney took a similar tack against the other GOP prospects, also none too shy about attacking the former Massachusetts Governor, and one by one they all fell by the wayside.

Going into this year’s campaign it’s hard to tell who fired the first negative ad salvo, but they’re already on every channel.  And the response from almost anyone I talk to is that they can’t stand the negative TV ads and constant attacks. But, sadly, again, the reason nearly all of the campaign ads and rhetoric are so negative, is because, they work.  Just as Don Beyer found out so many years ago.

You may reach David Kerr at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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