Friday afternoon, I was listening to Hugh Hewitt talk with Mike Gallagher, and they briefly discussed negative campaigning. I was surprised to hear Hugh claim that citing supposed deficiencies in your opponents’ positions was somehow not negative campaigning to him. Strange, if an educated Law Professor in LA can miss that one, it’s clear that we need to go over the basics.
There are four basic types of campaigning; Informational, Advocational, Negative, and Dirty. Most candidates will use something from all four types during a campaign, especially national campaigns which last more than a month or two.
Informational campaigning happens when a candidate is trying to announce to the public who they are and what they stand for. The chief goals are to increase name recognition and create a unique position in the voter’s mind for the candidate;
Advocational campaigning happens when a candidate releases advertising and other media designed to persuade the public to vote for him or her. Advocational campaigning is different from informational campaigning in that advocational campaigning attempts to achieve specific gains in support, which is generally represented by poll response and fundraising results. However, advocational campaigning can also lay the groundwork for later strategy, such as the ‘Super Tuesday’ primaries;
Negative campaigning is the flip side of advocational campaigning. Where advocational campaigning gives reasons why a voter should support a certain candidate, negative campaigning gives reasons why a voter should not support a certain opponent. Any advertisement or statement which discusses weaknesses or flaws in an opponent is negative campaigning;
Dirty campaigning is behavior which is generally considered unethical in attempts to influence an election. Examples of dirty campaigning are sadly abundant, ranging from bribery, scare tactics, lying about beliefs and behavior, especially in an attack on a political opponent, to attempts to manipulate conditions to prevent losing.
It should be noted that the lines between these categories can sometimes be indistinct. For instance, Kerry supporters considered the ads by Swift Boat veterans in the 2004 campaign to be dirty campaigning, because they felt the charges were false, while Bush supporters felt the ads were negative campaigning but legitimate, because the claims were accurate. Other times the lines are quite clear; LBJ’s ‘Daisy’ ad in 1964 for example, which implied that electing Barry Goldwater to the White House could result in Nuclear War, was clearly dirty in character.
The reasons for these different categories of campaigning are structural and conditional. The front-runner in a political race, for example, enjoys name recognition and a generally positive image, and so would be reluctant to use negative campaigning, and would be very likely to forbid dirty campaigning, as these types could damage the candidate’s public perception. Candidates behind the leader or in a tight race, however, would be far more tempted to use negative campaigning, as it is necessary to change the public’s preference for the front-runner in order for another candidate to take the lead. All modern political candidates decry dirty campaigning, yet the two most lopsided Presidential elections (1964, 1972) both incorporated dirty campaigning, which implies that carefully-applied dirty tricks can be very successful.