I’ve been a student of political campaigns for more than 30 years, and every election cycle it seems more voters are turned off by the relentlessly negative tone of political advertising.
The truth is this – negative campaigning will never go away. (Indeed, it has been around in every election since shortly after the founding of the American Republic. George Washington won his first election without anybody really attacking him, but since then it’s been pretty much a free-for-all.)
Frankly, not all of what is lumped into the category of “negative” campaigning is actually problematic. But it is hard for the average voter to differentiate between ads that focus on genuine policy disagreements, versus those that dishonestly seek to distort, exaggerate or unfairly impugn someone’s character.
Sadly, the overwhelmingly negative tone of most campaigns breeds cynicism about all candidates and discourages voter turnout.
Negative campaigning will always be with us in part because it is effective.
A few years back I got to talk to Steve Largent, NFL Hall of Famer, former Oklahoma Congressman and one-time Republican nominee for Governor of Oklahoma. Largent had a great reputation for integrity and political courage, great name ID, and took a huge lead in the polls into the general election campaign for Governor.
But Largent made a commitment to run a positive campaign, focusing only on what he would do for Oklahoma. His opponent battered him with a series of attack ads. Largent didn’t respond, staying completely positive, and went from a huge lead to a narrow loss in the 2002 election – an otherwise good year for Republicans. Subsequently, he was faulting for running a “weak” campaign.
Quite simply, voters want to know why they should choose you. Part of the answer is about why you would be good, and part of it is about why your opponent would not be.
The important thing for voters to understand is that not every “negative” attack is equal.
Candidates are obligated to differentiate their experience, record and views on issues from opponents. But I believe they should do so without exaggeration, distortion, or resort to focusing on extraneous personal issues that have nothing to do with the office.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with a hard-hitting, factual mailer or TV ad that truthfully compares your views and your record with your opponent’s, or that simply points out deficiencies or inconsistencies in your opponent’s campaign.
At the same time, there is no excuse for a trumped-up, phony, dishonest mailer or advertisement that distorts your opponent’s record, falsely demeans his or her character, or otherwise misleads the voter about your opponent.
Given that negative campaigning will always be with us, it does no good to rail against it and punish yourself by refusing to allow your voice to be heard at the ballot box. Voters need to do the hard work of investigating claims and counter-claims.
Sometimes, the candidate of character will become obvious when you evaluate the way he or she campaigns, and the validity of the candidate’s critique of his or her opponent.

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