Sure, we all say we hate negative advertising – but does it work?

by Stephen Tall on August 27, 2008

Some interesting analysis of the Democrats’ Denver Convention to anoint Senator Barack Obama as their presidential nominee over at the Electoral Vote website:

The traditional media seem to have picked up on … [a] theme that the Democrats are letting McCain off easy. Long-time Clinton insider James Carville has been all over TV saying that the Democrats have let slip a golden opportunity to pummel McCain. Gov. Ed Rendell (D-PA) compared Obama to Adlai Stevenson, another cerebral Illinoisian, saying that both of them liked to give long thoughtful answers to complex questions, when soundbites would be more effective. Sen. Chuck Schumer(D-NY) said the Democrats should throw more rabbit punches. Indeed, the keynote speaker, Mark Warner, emphasized bipartisanship and working with the Republicans to solve the country’s problems. Of course, Warner is running for the Senate in a fairly red state, so he has his own reasons for making nice to the Republicans, but it is still odd for a keynote speaker not to throw any red meat to the party’s activists.

In contrast, the McCain campaign was in full-bore attack mode. Not a word about bipartisanship. It was running ads attacking Obama as too young to lead and bellowing that he is too weak to be commander in chief. To a considerable extent, this looks like a rerun of 2004, with polite Democrats and fighting Republicans. When asked, the voters say over and over that they can’t stomach these negative ads, but as Lee Atwater discovered a long time ago, they are immensely effective. Some of the convention speakers last night mocked the fact that McCain couldn’t remember how many houses he had, but the suggestion was that he had too many houses. If the shoe had been on the other foot with an elderly Democrat vs. a young Republican, the Republicans would have harped on the memory loss aspect (if he can’t even remember how many houses he has, how can he remember what happened in the last cabinet meeting?). Democrats don’t like that kind of personal attack. It is just not in their blood.

Three questions to ponder, then:

1. Are the Democrats too nice/squeamish/pussyfooting to really lay into a political opponent who, while dubbed a maverick, holds pretty traditional Republican views?
2. Is the UK different from the USA? Does negative advertising, at least as understood in the States, exist already over here – and, if it does, does it work?

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Negative campaigning does work. But:

– if your opponents are only using positive messages then you need to balance your campaign messages with positive ones as well. Otherwise people are turned off by your purely negative message.
– your negative criticisms need to look plausible and ideally fit in with a doubt that people already have in their mind about that party/person (which I suppose is what the Republicans are trying to do to Obama).
– it is better if it is aimed at a party rather than an individual as many people are turned off you being nasty about individuals (which is the key difference i suppose between UK and US, as it is unavoidable in a presidential system).
– ideally you also can back up all your negative claims with the evidence.

I don’t like negative campaigning really, but sometimes it is the only way you can get across an important message about how the other party isn’t suitable for election. The best example I know is the Lib Dems in Cardiff gunning for Russell Goodway, the then leader of the council, back in 2004. In that case, Russell Goodway had a poor reputation anyway and the Labour Party was very much built around him and so the negative campaigning worked.

by Anders on August 27, 2008 at 3:00 pm. Reply #

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