Principled Progressive: Welcome to the Mud Pit

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

If you’ve been following the reality show better known as the Republican primary, you’ve seen the body blows being exchanged by Mitt Romney and whoever happens to be the anti-Mitt of the day. Perhaps no person has been hit harder by Romney and his exquisite money bazooka than Newt Gingrich, who has been subject to more political rebirths and deaths then Richard Nixon. Both Gingrich and Romney have made it abundantly clear that the remainder of the primary campaign season is going to be a brutally negative one.

And this is only the warm-up for the general election. When the Republicans finally get their act together and nominate somebody (Mitt Romney), expect to see President Obama (and the “non-coordinating” outside groups backing him) fire broadsides against the Republican nominee about the GOP’s complacency over and responsibility for allowing inequality to spiral to unconscionable heights (and yes, Virginia, inequality is rising), while simultaneously promoting Obama’s more egalitarian agenda. We don’t even need to anticipate the horror stories that will be spun by Republicans about the dangers of reelecting the capitalist-hating, American-values-destroying, Teleprompter-using radical occupying 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue; this happens every day on the Republicans’ campaign trail.

Despite, or perhaps because of the harshly negative tone that will likely define the 2012 election cycle, I’m cautiously optimistic about the type of campaign I believe we will see from both parties. This might seem strange, but I’m a fan of negative campaigning, given the positive demonstrable impact it has on both civic engagement and political awareness, you should be a fan too.

The conventional wisdom holds that negative campaigns bring out the worst of our political system, turning off the broader electorate from civic engagement in all its forms. But, like a great deal of conventional wisdom, there is nothing besides anecdotal evidence and overwrought hand-wringing to support it. When political scientists delve into rigorous analysis of campaigning’s effects, specifically the supposedly supreme evil of advertising, the conventional wisdom simply does not hold.

Michael Franz, Paul Freedman, Kenneth Goldstein and Travis Ridout studied the effects of campaign advertising in the aptly titled Campaign Advertising and American Democracy. They found that the conventional wisdom that negative campaign ads are the worst evil ever to visit the American political system is flat out wrong. According to their book, purely negative ads that focus only on the candidate’s opponent and contrast ads that juxtapose the candidate and opponent are historically more likely then purely positive ads to contain some kind of policy information. It is possible that survey respondents were much more likely to place Al Gore and George Bush on the correct side politically because of this increased exposure to policy.

At a certain level, this makes a lot of sense. Positive ads are very often are merely uplifting platitudes about how committed the candidate is to his or her family, the community, the American way of life, baseball and apple pie, with maybe a little bit of policy thrown in for good measure. By contrast, typical negative ads are a torrent of grainy black and white photos, discordant music, and a blitz of information displaying how completely wrongheaded the opposing candidate has been on a host of policy-related issues. Given the choice between the two, I would rather have the ads with more information seep down to the typical voter. I want our electorate to have the ability to make informed choices, even if political scientists largely pooh-pooh the romantic notion that voters make choices based on policy over other generally partisan considerations. To enhance voter knowledge, for better or for worse, negative ads should rule the air over their glossy positive counterparts.

Furthermore, the commonly expressed concern that negative advertising reduces voter interest proved to be unfounded. There is no statistical evidence that voters care less about an election after being bombarded with negative or contrast ads. Moreover, the evidence shows that exposure to negative advertising increases voter turnout, while positive advertising has no significant impact on getting people off the couch to the polls. In this light, I’d venture that negative advertisements might even be a marginal force for good in American democracy.

Of course, I must temper my enthusiasm for diving too deep into the mud pit that will define this campaign. All of the positive effects stemming from exposure to negative campaigning only hold if campaigns don’t delve to the lowest common denominator and start engaging in unwarranted character assassination. As I’m so often reminded when viewing ads for investment strategies, past performance doesn’t necessarily guarantee future results. Perhaps with the rise of anonymous and corporately funded SuperPACs this year, we will buck the trend and policy-based advertising will fall by the wayside. However, if the historical trend of policy and candidate record-centric advertising is continued, as I believe will happen, I welcome the negative campaigns with open arms.

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