Negativity in the Presidential Election: Why Is It Appealing for Candidates?

Negativity is not a new feature of electoral campaigns in the United States. The 1988 election saw one of electoral history’s most successful attacks against a presidential candidate. You might remember it; the ad featured a goofy-looking Mike Dukakis riding a tank, implying that Dukakis was not the alternative when it came to international strategic security. The strategy worked, and Bush Sr. was then perceived as the viable choice, in a world where the spectre of Communism threatened the stability of the American way of living.

The world is very different now. Needless to say, the challenges that face the United States have changed in ways that remain similar to the challenges of the Cold War, but yet are uniquely special, given the effects of globalization, free trade, non-State actors and the internet. So why is it then that our ways of conducting electoral campaigns still appeal to negativity?

Pursuing a negative campaign strategy has a purpose. The assumption behind is that if the public is exposed to more information, they can explore alternatives and further scrutiny on issues, policy stances, and the aptitude of every candidate. One of the quintessential explorations on the subject, The Spectacle of U.S. Senate Campaigns (1999) by Kim F. Kahn and Patrick J. Kenney, lays out a methodical, quantitative approach to further understand what are some of the strengths and purposes of going negative. Even when this publication focuses on Senate races, there are some lessons that are applicable to the 2016 presidential campaign.

The first one is the role of the media in negative campaigning. Let’s say that candidate Red decides to bring forward an attack against candidate Blue regarding negligent management of an Email account. As Red frames his attack, he would not do so unless he feels that early on the race, the media has been covering Blue’s negligence. Ideally, Red would have to make sure that the media referenced the negligence before he did, given that the public will not look too favorably on a candidate that initiates the going negative strategy. Red also has to realize that the media serves as a gatekeeper for information, and that he is not in control of the way the media will frame his negative commercial. The media in this case, will serve as the vehicle that allows Red to go negative while making sure that his attack does not backfire, turning the public against him for taking the offensive early in the campaign. However, the media also provides some balance that allows Blue to make use of it to defend and attack. If the media and Red attack Blue early in the race, Blue can seize the opportunity to defend his positions and then go on the offensive later in the campaign. The media provides Blue with an opportunity to debate on issues, policy and other concerns while under attack. The role of the media then, as an agitator of some sort, grants the public the opportunity to access information and alternatives that were not already present.

The second lesson is that as the race becomes more competitive, negativity rises accordingly. Competitiveness is not assessed by the media in this case, but polls standings. If Blue is leading, he will not pursue a negative strategy, given that a backfire could be a critical strike to his campaign. However, as Red closes in, Blue might choose to go negative to gather some of the undecided voters that could potentially grant him greater advantage. Status and competitiveness are the drivers for such negativity (Kahn & Kenney, 1999). Kahn and Kenney also bring forward an idea that I find very interesting: the status of the candidate plays a larger role than partisanship in explaining the substance of the attack (Kahn & Kenney, 1999). This potentially allows the public to step away from partisan affiliation, issue ownership and other biases. Blue might have more experience in Washington than Red due to a longer career in politics, so as the race closes in, Red could use that as a liability as he exposes the Email negligence, stepping away from partisanship and approaching the undecided voter.

With the abovementioned information, we can now understand why the 2016 election is so loaded with negative campaigning. The public demands more information. The social media phenomena and the internet have generated an insatiable hunger for information. The massive scale of the public to whom electoral messages are addressed has a very limited attention span. Negativity becomes then the strategy that allows to capture public attention to explore the issues that shape up the electoral debate. If you were to have Red and Blue give lengthy speeches about their consolidated strategies in let’s say International Relations; the public would just not react in the same way they would under a negative strategy. As undesired as this is to many of us, who would expect a positive campaign with comprehensive policy layouts, the accessibility of the message and the desired reach make propensity to go negative the norm. Now, as the race closes in, it would be interesting to observe what is the nature of the messages conveyed by both Secretary Clinton and Mr. Trump. For next week I will be exploring what is the message conveyed in their campaigns regarding women issues and gender equality.     


Guillermo Gorrin is a St. Olaf senior from Caracas, Venezuela majoring in Political Science, Management and Latin American Studies.