Many years ago, while I was in college (the second, more successful time, from 1995-1997), a professor who was very smart cited for one of my political science classes this “conventional wisdom” about how well negative campaigning works. He was absolutely certain of it, and he cited two big examples to “prove” his assertion; the LBJ “Daisy ad” from 1964 and the “Willie Horton” ad from 1988. Apparently, in both cases, one single ad from each campaign was sufficient to show us that the entirety of each campaign was negative and that the negativity was what won the election.
The problem was, I was already in my 30s and I had already worked in a lot of political campaigns by that point, and I had never seen any of the candidates I supported take on a negative tone. Sure, sometimes they had to defend themselves, but they never became negative against the other candidate, I’d say about 75% of the candidates I worked for won, so while I liked this professor, I was a bit more skeptical than the other students in the class, and I decided that was what my research paper would be about. Of course, I discussed the Johnson campaign in 1964 and the 1988 Bush campaign, but I added a number of others, as well. (I wish I could find that paper, but I’m going to consider re-doing it and updating it for the blog.)
To write the paper, I accessed articles from the period to show that, in 1964, the infamous “Daisy” ad, while memorable, was an anomaly. It only aired once; on September 7, 1964, a full two months before the election, and Johnson was already trouncing Goldwater, with polling showing him with 65% support. He won two months later with 61% of the vote. (Source) Therefore, it’s damn near impossible to claim that LBJ won because of the the Daisy ad; Goldwater was never going to win. Here is the Daisy ad:
That’s pretty strong, but again, it only ran once, and Johnson’s poll numbers didn’t budge. I’m not even sure why they ran it. Overall, Goldwater’s campaign was far more negative. Think about it; what is more negative than Goldwater’s infamous quote, “Extremism in the name of liberty is no vice.”? Throughout most of the 1964 campaign, Johnson’s campaign echoed Kennedy’s and was very upbeat, while Goldwater actually inaugurated the Southern Strategy by focusing his efforts on The Civil Rights Act of 1964. He didn’t oppose civil rights, per se; he used what has become a Republican classic “states’ rights” argument, in which he claimed the law infringed on the sovereignty of the states. While most credit Richard Nixon with the “Southern Strategy,” its genesis belongs to Goldwater. In any case, Goldwater’s rhetoric was largely negative and the Daisy ad was really the only truly negative tack LBJ took that election so, based on this notion that “negative campaigning works,” Goldwater should have won in a walk.
I then looked more closely at the 1988 campaign, and I chose about a dozen or so other campaigns at random and found that Republicans always run negative campaigns, which means they should always win, right? And yet, as of late 1995, when I wrote the paper, Republicans won barely more than half of all contested races and they had just won back a slight majority in the House for the first time in almost 40 years. My research showed that the only time Republicans won was when the mood surrounding the Democrats was also very negative. This is really important, because I am not saying the Democrats ran negative campaigns; I’m saying the mood surrounding them ran on the negative side. Usually, it’s progressives who do this to a candidate, which means we hold the key to fixing this problem.
If you look back just at presidential races, you can see this pattern easily. In 1968, the mood surrounding Humphrey was negative, largely because progressives split with him over the Vietnam War and because progressives pet candidates, Bobby Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy were assassinated and lost, in that order, which put Richard Nixon into office. In 1972, progressive support for McGovern was strong at first, but it shouldn’t have been; he was a great man and very progressive, but as a campaigner, he was terrible and eventually, progressive support for McGovern became lukewarm at best — against an incumbent, that’s death. In 1976, Jimmy Carter was such a breath of fresh air, he should have won easily, but because progressives were largely non-committal about him, he barely eked out a win against an extremely weak Gerald Ford, who ran what was as close to a positive campaign as any Republican in the modern era.
Then came 1980, and an election that progressives could have won easily. However, instead of putting their support behind a very progressive Jimmy Carter for a second term, progressives banded behind Ted Kennedy, who was such a bad candidate, he froze when he was asked the single most crucial question a candidate is ever asked; “Why are you running for president?” Then, when Carter won, progressives once again abandoned him and trashed him, in favor of former Republican John Anderson, which gave us the neocon era with the election of the least popular candidate ever elected president, Ronald Reagan. People forget this, but at the time he was elected, Saint Reagan had the lowest approval rating of any president at the time of his first inauguration. (Source) With a positive attitude, Carter could have gotten a second term, which would have meant no Reagan, no Bushes and a much better country over the last 36 years. The election that gave us Reagan saw the lowest voter turnout in a presidential election in more than a half-century and it was part of a persistent trend.
In 1984, progressives were at best lukewarm for Mondale, who was a certified liberal, and they scoffed at the candidacy of Michael Dukakis in 1988, another actual liberal. The only reason Bill Clinton won in 1992 was because Bush sunk himself with his base; it was the only election in the modern era in which Republican turnout went below 80%, and that is why we have the Klown Kar today, in which Republican candidates fall all over each other to appeal to their shrinking base and don’t care about anyone else, because they know, if turnout among their base goes below 80%, they pretty much can’t win. In 2000 and 2004, the combination of an energized Republican base and the constant Democrat-bashing coming from the left gave us two terms of George W. Bush. And don’t blame it all on the Supreme Court and cheating; it shouldn’t have been that close.
Proof that negativity does not work and positivity does comes with the 2008 election. Obama was overwhelmingly positive; he never trashed anyone, and since he was black, even white liberal former Nader fans were enthralled, primarily because he was black and they wanted to “make history.” The result of all that “hope and change” was the highest election turnout since 1968, and Democrats winning in a walk. They even came within a hair’s breadth of a supermajority in the Senate, which would have allowed them to change the rules and make it so bills passed with a majority. In 2012, he ran another positive campaign, and he again won easily, even though the Republican base turned out at well above 80%.
That’s just presidential elections, but it translates to other elections as well. In contested elections, Republicans always run a negative campaign, because it’s what their base demands. It works for them because it serves two purposes; it excites their shrinking-but-loyal base of voters, who like anything that “pisses off liberals,” and it makes other voters depressed enough to not want to turn out at the polls. Both of those are an advantage to them and hurt us.
Now, here’s the million-dollar question (and you need to think about this hard); if negativity works for Republicans by depressing turnout, how could it possibly work for our side?
The answer is, it works against us. It should be obvious; Republicans are a significantly smaller party than Democrats, and yet they currently control the entire Congress and a majority of statehouses, including those in many blue states. And they have maintained this winning streak for more than a generation. The last time progressives had a significant stake in government was 1970, and we worked with Democrats to create a Democratic supermajority for most of the period between 1932 and 1970. Look at the progress we made back then and compare it to now, when a significant portion of the progressive movement thinks trashing Democrats is somehow important.
If you think negative campaigning works, you’re right. It works wonderfully for Republicans and the far right. But it works against progressives, for the simple reason that we’re not negative. We’re supposed to be the hopeful ones, remember? We’re looking to make progress, which should be a positive thing. Therefore, when you are negatively attacking a Democrat, be aware that you are actually helping the Republicans. Negativity is negativity; voters don’t see a difference between ours and theirs.
Also, voters are not motivated by negativity; negativity is only motivating to extremists, or people who are always outraged, and they’re in a strong minority. There is no point to Hillary Clinton supporters attacking Bernie Sanders and there is no point to Sanders supporters attacking her, either. In fact, that’s how Hillary lost in 2008; Obama had a cogent message and he stuck with it the entire way, and Clinton attacked him in a desperate attempt to knock him off. And she lost. Our side always loses when we attack our own. It’s simple really; if you can’t say anything positive about others on your side, you don’t have much of a chance at all. If you can’t sell Bernie without attacking Hillary, you don’t have much of a candidate. And if Hillary can’t sell herself without attacking Bernie, then she’s opening the door to another upset, just like 2008.
We have to get smarter about politics. Negative campaigning does not work for us. I would think 40 years of losing would have taught us this.