The positives of negative ads [Commentary]

There may be no more enigmatic concept in politics than negative campaigning. Virtually no one publicly supports it, almost every non-shoe-in political principal uses it, and almost no two people mean the same thing when they refer to it.

Periodic hostile and ugly political campaigning goes back centuries in America. In the beginning of the 19th century, there was hatchet man James Thomson Callender's attacks on Thomas Jefferson, claiming the new president fathered children with slaves. Decades later, there were Republican taunts of "Ma, Ma, where's my pa?" toward Democrat Grover Cleveland, implying he had fathered a child out of wedlock.


And so it ebbed and flowed until the 1980s when there was a journalistic consensus that campaigning had reached a new low of irrelevance, nastiness and fraud, according to journalists ranging from conservative George F. Will to liberal Tom Wicker.

In 2012 T. W. Farnam of The Washington Post argued that negative campaign advertising had become the norm, with roughly half being not just negative but accompanied by vitriol.


In Maryland and Washington D.C. there has been an ever-increasing general abhorrence of negative campaigning by many politicians and journalists. Del. Heather Mizeur, for example, won plaudits from almost all pundits (not here) for her proclaimed aversion to negative political persuasion in her attempt to become Democratic nominee for governor:

"What I hear in living rooms and community centers across the state are people ready for politicians to remain positive," she told a Baltimore crowd.

In The Washington Post of July 13, 2014, political veteran reporter Dan Balz wrote a piece praising Colorado's John Hickenlooper as "the man who hates negative ads."

The hostility toward negative ads and negative campaigning is generally unjustified both practically and as a principle of right vs. wrong in campaigning, however. Avoiding negative campaigning eliminates criticism of your opponent, and if he/she is the frontrunner, it may guarantee victory. Ms. Mizeur finished third of three in the governor's race. Moreover, her condemnation of negativity in the gubernatorial campaigns hurt mostly Attorney General Doug Gansler, rather than frontrunner Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown. The electoral outcome was this: Together, Del. Mizeur and Mr. Gansler did not equal Mr. Brown's vote. Mr. Brown, the incumbent governor's choice, suffered no negative challenge from Ms. Mizeur, who also dismissed the challenge from Mr. Gansler to his and her detriment. Would those who oppose negative campaigning say that Sen. Brian E. Frosh should not have argued that Del. Jon Cardin's missing 75 percent of his committee votes disqualified him from being the Democratic nominee for Attorney General? That fact, first revealed by The Baltimore Sun's reporting, indisputably lost that primary race for Mr. Cardin.

Negative campaigning can be very effective, especially when your opponent is unknown or the public opinion regarding him or her is unstable. It wins and loses primary and general elections. How is a politically uneducated electorate to know of a primary candidate's weaknesses or shortcomings if there is no negative campaigning? Especially now that media is increasingly stretched thin and unable to cover many races. Opposing negativity in political campaigns is like opposing someone's criticizing your relative: it should depend on what they are criticizing and how they criticize it. All negative campaigning is not the same. Several years ago we wrote of the "FIT" test for evaluating the acceptability of negativity in political races. Unacceptable negative political persuasion is that which is 1. false; 2. irrelevant; or 3. tasteless. The rest is fair game.

Acceptable examples include President Barack Obama's alleged foreign policy inconsistencies or Ronald Reagan's age in his second presidential campaign. Unacceptable negative attacks include the 2012 claim that Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney backed a bill outlawing abortion even in the case of incest or rape (false); where specifically President Obama was during the Benghazi Attack (irrelevant) or sexist attacks on Hillary Clinton, such as Mike Barnicle's once-famous 2008 claim that as far as likability, when confronting opponents, Mrs. Clinton looks "like everyone's first wife standing outside a probate court" (tasteless).

Criticism is essential in campaigns to argue why one's election is not just a good thing, but also necessary to reverse or change the direction of the city, state or country.

Those who oppose all negativism in political campaigning either yearn for insipidity or advantage, but not the rightfully vaunted marketplace of ideas to determine the best candidates.


Richard E. Vatz is professor of political rhetoric at Towson University and is author of "The Only Authentic Book of Persuasion" (Kendall Hunt, 2013); his email is Lee S. Weinberg is an associate professor within the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh. His email is

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