Going Dirty: The Art of Negative Campaigning

by David Mark, January 2006

Paperback: 296 pages
Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.; New Ed edition (March 28, 2007)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0742545016
ISBN-13: 978-0742545014

Review by Sunny Freeman, February 2007

During the 2006 mid-term elections, stories of pedophiles, dirty lobbyists and gay, meth-dealing prostitutes became conflated with the campaigns of more than a few candidates.

In recent years, it seems there has been an influx of dirty campaign tactics, in addition to a backlash of media commentary deriding negative campaigning.

According to David Mark, former editor-in-chief of Elections and Campaigns magazine, the 2006 campaigns are not unique in the long history of negative political advertisements in U.S. politics.

David Mark’s timely Going Dirty :The Art of Negative Campaigning explores the history of negative campaigning from the Declaration of Independence to the Internet era. He contends that, although new media have increased the scope of dirty campaigns, “compare and contrast techniques” have been a staple of U.S. democracy since the American Revolution.

Mark’s account of the evolution of negative campaigning is scrupulous and his expertise on the subject is readily apparent.

He recounts well-known attacks, like the infamous 2004 Swift boat ads against presidential hopeful John Kerry and the hilarious 1988 “Dukakis in a tank” picture. But Mark also provides historical examples of negative campaigns that provide the context to understand the motivations behind modern mudslinging campaigns.

For example, he describes an episode from the 1884 elections, when Republicans dubiously accused Democratic presidential nominee Grover Cleveland of fathering and abandoning an illegitimate child. The Republicans capitalized on this accusation by repeating the pithy rhetorical jab, “Ma, ma, where’s my pa?” in ad campaigns.

In addition to noteworthy historical campaigns, Mark examines some of the most notorious political tacticians from Lee Atwater to Karl Rove to underscore how the game of politics is a social Darwinian survival of the fittest.

Mark engages the negative campaigning issue on a lively and accessible level, but his historical accounts would benefit from more theoretical analysis. His guide to negative campaigning ends abruptly, without a conclusion that puts the accounts in a broader political context. However, Mark’s interspersed commentary does offer some provocative insight into the inner-workings of American politics.

Mark’s implicit conclusion is that negative attacks on political opposition is inherent in democratic political campaigns. Publicizing damaging information about a political rival is an inevitable by-product of a liberal democratic society with a free press and an open marketplace of ideas. Competing for votes in a free market system inevitably breeds campaigns that demonize an opponent for political gain.

Furthermore, Mark believes that, although the public may seem turned off by negative campaign tactics and journalists may criticize political mudslinging because it lowers the level of public discourse, negative campaigning is not only inevitable but also beneficial for the public.

First, he claims that it uncovers truths that candidates suppress during campaigns, allowing the public to make the most informed choice possible.

Second, Mark believes that a candidate’s response to negative campaigning is indicative of how he/she would react to criticism in office because politicians need to be able to handle pressure and criticism with grace.

According to Mark, attempts to reform campaigning tactics through measures such as the “stand by your ad” stipulation, in which politicians had to voice approval in an ad, and the Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act, that sought to reduce campaign contributions by wealthy individuals seeking to influence the election outcome, have been circumvented by cunning politicians.

Instead of attempting to regulate negative campaigns, Mark proposes the best solution is to allow attacks and counterattacks to flourish and let the voters decide which are too extreme and which convey relevant information.

“Negative campaigning can be an art,” he writes. “But if you just go out and sling mud, you could end up hurting your own campaign.”

Mark offers some sage advice and stipulations for politicians to work within. The underlying theme is that well-timed, cleverly executed ads that reinforce the electorate’s preconceptions are effective; while sloppy, vindictive personal attacks that don’t understand the electoral context fail.

If an ad is striking, resonant and entertaining, the ad tends to be remembered because audience members retain negative information more readily than positive information.

Not surprisingly, Mark dedicates a chapter to the future of negative campaigning in the age of new media. Blogs, YouTube and other Internet technologies expand the scope of the audience, allow campaigners to circumvent traditional restrictions, and target specific audiences in order to customize campaigns.

Although media criticize negative campaign tactics and air ads partly to hold those who made them accountable, they become implicated in the cycle of negativity. Campaign managers, who uphold the old adage “any publicity is good publicity”, welcome the additional airtime and audience provided free of charge by critical media.

Perhaps the news media has the responsibility not to showcase attack ads, even if the publicity it brings to candidates is unintentional. In re-airing these ads, media loses their status as objective observers because showing a clip appears to reinforce the message it conveys.

The 21st century barrage of media coverage, including the advent of the 24-hour news channel and Internet news sites, has served to turn politics into 24/7, 12-months-a-year campaigns.

With the positive results of negative campaigning in the 2006 polls and an increasingly polarized American electorate, negative campaigning is set to become more central to political campaigning in the looming 2008 elections.


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