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I live in Iowa and have been inundated with a lot of political advertising everywhere (TV, mail, internet) as the 2020 US election approaches. It seems to me that most of the political advertising from all side mostly focus on characterizing opposing candidates as evil rather than pointing out positive attributes of the candidate the ad is promoting. Why do politicians and their campaigns do this? Is it more effective? If so, why is it more effective?

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  • Comments deleted. Please don't use comments to answer the question. Write a real answer instead which adheres to our quality standards. – CDJB Oct 12 '20 at 9:44
  • I suggest it's partly for the same reason the media appears to concentrate on bad news… A house burning down concentrates into a few hours of excitement and risk roughly the same energy that was used to build it over tedious months – Robbie Goodwin Oct 15 '20 at 19:26

13 Answers 13

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The United States system promotes a sharply divided two-party system. That's called Duverger's Law and like any such "laws" it is no ironclad automatism, merely a clearly observable trend.

So anything which is bad for the others is automatically good for the own side. The disadvantage of being seen with smear tactics and of wasting the advertising budget without promoting yourself if compensated by the smut that sticks (see the answer by Beginner Biker). If there were three or four parties and two of them got into a smear battle, the votes might well go to one of the others.


In my opinion, which is not directly part of the answer, the US had a great Constitution some 250 years ago, but it was so great that they got out of the habit of updating it when new developments came along, like the railway or the telegraph. They merely added patches on top of patches. There is a technique in fault analysis to ask "why" five times.

Why are they slinging mud? Because it sticks.
Why does it stick? Because there are just two candidates.
Why are there just two candidates? Because of the majority vote.
Why majority vote? Because individuals are running for separate offices, not political parties.
Why pretend that there are no parties if they clearly do exist?

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – JJJ Oct 15 '20 at 6:51
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Most people, most of the time, think that things are pretty good, or at least tolerable, the way they are. As the US Declaration of Independence puts it "...all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed."

The logical consequence of this is that the majority of voters don't often want great change, which is a large part of the reason incumbents tend to be elected. So as a candidate, you have several choices:

  1. Portray yourself as just like your opponent, not wanting major changes but better looking, more likeable, charismatic, &c. Not really a path to victory, unless the opponent gets involved in some personal scandal.

  2. Portray yourself as the candidate of change. But since unless things are really bad, most people don't actually want change. You probably don't even get your party's nomination (e.g. Bernie Sanders); if you do, you wind up with a landslide loss, like George McGovern in the 1972 US Presidential election: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1972_United_States_presidential_election

  3. Portray the opponent as being really evil, and wanting to destroy (or having destroyed, if they're the incumbent) the system that people have gotten used to. Instead of being an agent of change (which most people don't want), you portray yourself as preventing|undoing the nasty changes the opponent wants|was responsible for.

Number 3 is the tactic that is most likely to succeed, especially when (as in the current US elections) there really is some substance on which to hang the "really evil" accusations.

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    incumbents tend to be elected — that is certainly not the case in most countries. The US is quite unique in that respect. In much of Europe, governments are voted out of power at every election, because the government is at the major disadvantage that they have to defend actual policies, whereas the opposition can run on criticism and promises. This is even more true in parliamentary systems where coalition governments are common. Your answer makes it sound like Biden presents himself as conservative, which I don't think is accurate. – gerrit Oct 11 '20 at 19:56
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    @gerrit: Perhaps I don't know enough about European politics, but AFAIK a government can be voted out by flipping a handful of seats, much as the US House & Senate can change party majorities even though most of their members are regularly re-elected. It's perhaps less obvious in the US, since there are three different things (including the President) that can be held by one or the other party, elected at different times, so it's unlikely for then whole government to switch parties in an election. (And Biden is certainly more conservative than Sanders.) – jamesqf Oct 12 '20 at 2:01
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    @gerrit even the European coalition goverments often get an “incumbent boost”. Well, at least the German ones; perhaps that's an outlier. – leftaroundabout Oct 12 '20 at 9:58
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    @gerrit: The notion of "incumbents" is typically tied to single-seat districts, typical of the Westminster FPTP system, or the two-seat states in the US Senate. Mainland Europe often has nation-wide PR with party lists. In such a context, an elected representative has no direct relation with a particular subgroup of voters. – MSalters Oct 12 '20 at 10:54
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    @gerrit: In the US, you have a defeated or term-limited President, who almost always retires from political life, whereas in the parlimentary system the Prime Minister of the defeated party just goes back to being an ordinary MP. (If they were not defeated in their run for their individual seat, of course.) Although they may resign from party leadership, they don't have to. And of course the party in power may win the election, so the PM stays in power. – jamesqf Oct 12 '20 at 17:09
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Political ads cost money and have to be kept short.

It's pretty easy to pick one of your opponent's policy mistakes, flawed outcome or something they misspoke and weaponize that into a short, clear negative argument that can either strengthen the commitment of your voters or induce your opponent's voters to doubt and stay at home.

It's more difficult to pick to one of your positions and make a quick positive statement about why it's a good idea. Short statement like "I will bring more jobs" will not convince undecided electors - they've heard that before. Longer explanations risk losing viewers and will cost more money. Regarding past outcomes, an incumbent may very well have some policy successes to point to, but a challenger doesn't have that. Finally, even short policy statements may turn off some of your sympathizers: "I will stop all immigration" will be a vote winner for xenophobes, but less so to some employers in low wage industries.

The negative soundbite about what an opponent said is uniquely well suited to the medium as it can strip away all the context around what they said.

Note that some countries have rules against negative advertising, whether in a political context or not, that preclude political attack ads.

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Because they work.

Source: Being a political strategist/local politician in a Western democracy. Have had a lot of fun with highly effective negative campaigning.

it works.

But it works most effectively when you associate the positive elements of your campaign with the negative elements of what the opposition is (supposedly or actually doing). E.g. if you're campaigning on the opposing party squandering the municipal authority's money through reckless spending, you emphasise that you are committed to bringing fiscal discipline to the authority. Amateurs will just bash the opposition; pros will bash the opposition and promote themselves at the same time.

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  • This is the right answer. As I understand it (I've been a political junkie for decades), campaigns have tried just about everything, and they return to negative campaigns for the simple reason that they give you the best bang for the buck. It works best when you can hijack your opponent's "narrative" by consistently painting them in the same negative color. Ask any American about Hillary Clinton and the answers you will get will be about Benghazi, Emails and "Lock her up". Republicans in Congress painted her with Benghazi. Wikileaks and Trump handled the emails and "lock her up" – Flydog57 Oct 13 '20 at 5:07
  • Consider John Kerry's campaign for president. Kerry came out of the Viet Nam war with three purple hearts, a bronze star and a silver star on his uniform. He was running against George Bush who had spent the war in the Texas Air National Guard, so Kerry's military service was expected to be a big part of the campaign. Knowing that, the Bush campaign preemptively began the Swift Boat campaign (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Kerry#%22Swiftboating%22_controversy), painting his service as a liability. Somehow, the Republicans were able to use his military record against him – Flydog57 Oct 13 '20 at 5:15
  • It's particularly effective when campaigning for low-level, local elections that no-one really cares about. You can work very hard to get people to care about your earnest attempt to improve parking facilities, or you can make people angry about some relatively unimportant issue like wasteful spending by the local authority and make it central to your campaign. My limits (in terms of personal morality) were: never attack your opponent's character as individual people. That's wrong. And never tell lies or fabricate things. All of my attacks were absolutely legit. – Statsanalyst Oct 13 '20 at 14:19
  • In my case, the local authority was actually recklessly spending money, to an insane degree (e.g., spending more than the equivalent of twenty thousand US dollars on a set of folding chairs which were completely unnecessary, making multi-million dollar investments based on woefully inept financial planning), and jacking up taxes for local rate-payers. So this was absolutely a legitimate point to campaign on – Statsanalyst Oct 14 '20 at 1:26
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While you did not put a country tag, I assume that you are asking about the US.

As an alternative perspective: I have never seen that in France and it would be at least weird here.

Sure, during direct interactions they will tell the other candidate(s) that they are the worst that happened on earth since the Permian Extinction but that would never go in an advertisement, posters, ...

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    That is because a) France does not have a 2-party system like the US does (see o.m. answer to why this matters) and b) there are much stricter laws about what can be said in a (political) advert in France than in the US. The vast majority of political advertising you see in the US would not be legal in France or most other Western European countries. – quarague Oct 11 '20 at 15:07
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    @quarague It's also cultural. The Dutch Socialist Party had a controversial (and quality-wise atrocious) very negative political ad in the EU 2019 elections, they were vilified for "American style campaigning", and lost all their seats in the subsequent elections. – gerrit Oct 11 '20 at 19:55
  • @quarague Illegal? Let me doubt that. I have never heard of campaign ads in Europe being accused of crossing the line of legality, which should be common if there was such a line (that doesn't mean that they would be convicted in court but it should be a common accusation to throw at competitors). – d-b Oct 11 '20 at 20:27
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    @d-b this is somehow the case in France. See seban-associes.avocat.fr/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/… (in French), points 31, then 22. The content of the ad is left to the candidate, but there is regulation about defamation, insults, etc., with an emphasis on the campaign. How that would end in court is another story, but in any case such ads would be very negative for the candidate that would have used them. – WoJ Oct 12 '20 at 6:26
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    @WoJ Defamation can also get you into trouble in the U.S. It's not a crime (i.e. you can't be fined or go to jail for it,) but it definitely is a tort (i.e. someone can successfully sue you for it.) In particular, making a defamatory statement that you know at the time of making the statement to be false can get you successfully sued. However, politicians (and, for that matter, the media) frequently try to skirt this by making statements that might have a technically true interpretation, but which are intentionally horribly misleading. – reirab Oct 12 '20 at 20:37
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There are two reasons for this. The first as has been mentioned in other answers it is an attempt to get voters to change their vote from the opponent to the candidate who is running the attack ad.

The second and I think is to get the voter whose support you won't be able to win to not vote at all. I have heard the results of this both in 2016 and in 2020. In 2016 I was hearing that someone couldn't vote for either Trump or Hillary and the reasons for not voting for Hillary were based on the attack ads. I am hearing similar accounts this year for Biden which makes it seem the idea of costing your opponent is as good as getting them for yourself.

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Avoiding danger and "bad" outcomes is more evolutionarily important to any species than is achieving optimal outcomes. For that reason, people are just naturally more primed to respond to warnings and alerts of danger. Our eyesight, our hearing, our senses of taste, touch, and even smell all interrupt our activities and respond much more immediately to danger than to good things. So negative advertising against one's opponent is simply more effective (at an instinctual, subconscious level) at turning out voters in one's own favor.

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Because they work. Voters like to take a rather holier than thou attitude to politics, but the reality is that politicians only reflect what voters want.

Negative ads aren't necessarily false. If the result of voting for party A is X, and X is regarded as undesirable, then why shouldn't party B construct an advertising message around this? Do you not want to be informed of the undesirable consequences if you vote for party A?

I do think, however, that a negative adverts that aren't telling the true are morally repugnant.

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    I am not sure that is what voters want but it is what they respond to. – Joe W Oct 12 '20 at 15:42
  • "but the reality is that politicians only reflect what voters want." On this point, I'd strongly disagree. If you want proof, look at the favorability ratings of both candidates in the 2016 Presidential election. Maybe they reflect what some voters wanted, but certainly not a majority. In the 2016 primaries, in many of the early states that Trump won, he had numbers in the 20s or 30s, but there were so many other candidates that he ended up winning the primary anyway. Had Kasich dropped out before Super Tuesday, we'd probably have President Rubio or maybe Cruz. – reirab Oct 12 '20 at 21:48
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Let's separate out the ideal of politics from the reality of it. On the ideal level, we like to think that we are choosing the person who will lead the nation in the best manner (meaning the most intelligent and wise). On an intellectual level that is precisely what we want from an elected official: sound leadership, reasoned use of authority, moral coherence, and civic responsibility. We want someone who will take charge and do the right thing in response to the curve-balls that life throws at us.

In reality, though, we don't make assessments of candidates in the kind of reasoned, deliberate way we like to imagine of ourselves. We assess candidates in terms of their attitudes (in the particular way that George Herbert Mead used the term): a pre-linguistic, quasi-biological blend of posture, movement, vocal intonation, etc, that projects strength and security on a primitive level, much the way that dogs sense power in another dog's stance, growl, or the focus of its eyes, and submit without a fight. Politics on this level comes down to projecting an archetypal image that people instinctively respond to. We respond more viscerally to someone who projects a strong character than to someone who presents sound ideas, because we intuitively believe that character is what brings ideas into fruition. And yes, there is some validity in that intuition: knowing the right course of action and bringing it to pass are two different skill sets, and the latter is arguably more useful for a leader in society.

In the era before mass media took hold (pre-1930s) this visceral, attitudinal evaluation only applied to the candidate selection process, in groups that were small enough to meet the candidate personally. General elections were far more focused on policies and issues, because most people only knew the candidates in terms of their public statements about policies and issues. But as mass media became widespread, it became politicized, and the focus shifted began to shift away from the platform the candidate was standing on to the character of the candidate. Running for office became performance art: a carefully constructed theatrical effort to portray the candidate as having the correct attitude to lead. But one of the consequences of this increased visibility and shift towards character assessment — and of the performative aspect in particular — was an increase in efforts at character assassination: of hecklers trying to disrupt a high-minded, noble performance with jeers and insults. The campaign experience became progressively more like a literal dog-fight, with candidates focused more on trying to make other candidates submit, than on trying to connect with and attract citizens/voters.

As we've progressed into the modern social media era, most political campaigns have recognized that expressing actual policies and platforms — that is, anything more substantial than offering vague moral postures — merely creates an angle for opponents to attack a candidate's character. Any attempt to expand on policy during a campaign will immediately be dissected by innumerable opponents looking for opportunities to attack the candidate's intelligence, credibility, authenticity, honesty, or other 'character' qualities that can be used (dog-fight style) to force the candidate into a submissive posture. Trumpism is perhaps the epitome of this. From Trump's pugnacious, bullying efforts to overwhelm Biden at the first debate, to the WWE style of Trump's general campaign (all the puffed-up, blustering, trash-talking elements of WWE short of bashing people with folding chairs), to the offensive and idiotic strains of QAnon conspiracy, to the overtly in-your-face attitude of Trumpists nationwide, Trumpism has made this election entirely about character assassination, so that there is literally no place for calm, coherent discussions of policy to take place. But Trumpism isn't the cause of this issue; Trumpism is merely the natural, (il)logical extension of the increased visibility of candidates and the consequent increased pressure of this visceral, attitudinal aspect of politics.

There are solutions to this problem — which I add because I don't want this to seem quite as jaded and hopeless as it might sound — but this is not the place to get into them. Perhaps on some other question...

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At the expense of being tautological, because the point of political campaigns is getting more votes than the opposition.

Convincing people to expand the effort is usually very difficult because of the fact that any one person's vote doesn't swing the election.

Convincing the voters to vote requires providing enough impetus for them to galvanize them to vote.

There are 3 types of ads:

  1. Negative ads (come slay the dragon by voting)
  2. Positive ads (come hug the teddy bear by voting)
  3. Policy ads (come participate in governing by voting)

  1. Negative ads tap into the fight-or-flight response. They create the perception of the opposing candidate as a monster who is attacking and can be fought with as little effort as casting a vote.

  2. Positive ads create a perception of a politician being a lovable member of the family who can be "hugged" by simply voting. These do appeal to the people who are unhappy to begin with. It gives them a chance to express their love. But they do little to animate anyone who is already happy in their personal life.

  3. Policy-based ads appeal to the people with an intense sense of duty. These are the people who believe that their own relationship to other people must be based on the desire to be useful. Their desired solution to the prisoner's-dilemma-type problems is the cooperative one.

Getting back to the actual question at hand, do the ads work and why are the negative ads preferable to the other types of ads?

If they can get voters, who would not vote otherwise, to vote, then they work. The types of people who are most susceptible to the negative ads are the ones who are content with where they are in life. They are not looking for a new person to love (so type-2 ads won't animate them) and they are not looking to fulfill their sense of duty (so type-3 ads won't animate them). But the negative ads create the perception that they may lose what they have (so type-1 ads will animate them).

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Sorry to add yet another answer but...

The answer is simply that politics makes for strange bedfellows.

It's harder to campaign on your platform, because people who are nominally "on your side" are not going to support every aspect of your platform. It's much safer to lambast your opponent for the things that made the people on your side be on your side in the first place.

By way of example, how much do Hillary and Bernie supporters really agree on beside how much Trump sucks? I mean sure there are some things that anyone on the Left are going to agree on, but the fault lines are there and it makes way more sense as a political strategy to paper over them by rallying around hating Trump than having them register on the Richter scale the way they did during the last election.

Same thing plays out on the Right where you have an increasingly uneasy coalition of military-industrial complex neocons, religious fundamentalist tradcons, tea partiers, and (sometimes) libertarians. Oh, and that one guy who doesn't really belong in any of those groups...

The things you focus on are going to be the things everyone on your side agrees on, and those will be almost definitionally be the things that differentiate Right from Left in the broadest possible way, and it's easier to rally around those values by deriding your opponents for not having them (or for giving them less importance than you consider their due). Liberals think minorities are people too is page 12 news. "Liberals accuse Trump of being openly white-supremacist" is front page news. Conservatives want the government to spend less is page 12 news. "Barack Obama is a Socialist!" was front page news.

You can also take a controversial view that only a subset of people on the other side hold (e.g. communism on the Left, homophobia on the Right) and try to tar entire opposing side with that brush more easily that you can get your own side to rally around your (internally controversial) platform.

In our FPTP system it's the best way we've found so far to maintain party unity among diverse groups.

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  • This answer could be improved by specifying which election you meant registered on the Richter scale. – Joel Harmon Jan 10 at 1:20
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An alternative theory:

Recent generations of politicians are increasingly the products of expensive political campaigns funded by powerful donors and parties. Campaigning politicians spend a good deal of their time chasing and courting wealthy donors, and those donors usually expect something in return. This environment obliges the modern politician, (however virtuous their intentions), to sometimes take on the role of corrupt sycophant.

Compared to normal people, corrupt sycophants have a fairly large attack surface, which leads to the modern comedy of political parties that secretly compel their own candidates' corruption, but take turns publicly advertising the opposing party's corruption. That mutual and collective hypocrisy of opposing parties almost symbiotically balances each against the other and reduces both sides to a sort of crude sincerity.

But that balance requires that the general public become abstracted and disinterested enough to weigh their favorite candidates' broadcasted self praise against their opponents' broadcasted critiques.

Unfortunately, the recent confluence of advertising funded mass media consolidation and software filter bubbles tends to avoid such broadcasting, and instead narrowcasts to divided segments of the public attention, which atrophies these segments' capacity for disinterest and abstraction, thus breaking the mutually beneficial political party symbiosis, and replacing it with a competing and mutually unhealthy political party parasitism.

(Put another way, poorly regulated filter bubbles artificially turn otherwise normal people into paranoid bigots.)

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    I agree with what you are saying, but you take an awful lot of words to say it. I do think the issue is more complicated than your long winded explanation though. freakonomics.com/podcast/politics-industry – boatcoder Oct 11 '20 at 17:27
  • @boatcoder, Thanks for the Freakonomics duopoly URL; there are commonalities, but this present SE question is focused on the abnormality of mutually adversarial campaign advertising, while an economic apologetic rather tends to justify it, hence my preference for a more neutral ecological analogy, (i.e. symbiosis). If you have a specific suggestion, (like a before/after suggested revision), please send it. – agc Oct 13 '20 at 15:13
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Psychologists tell us that fear and hate are two primordial feelings to which we readily react. The Nazis were most effective in using this tactic in the 20th century. Goebbels was a master of it.

But there is nothing wrong with pointing out the wrong doings of a politician. It is the lying or the insinuations ("emails!") about the opposition that should be concerning. Being informed is one of the cornerstones of citizenship in a health democracy in order to act/vote in our best interests, rather than being misinformed and mislead.

As you suggest indirectly, politicians should be focusing on arguments, ideas and policy proposals and how they will accomplish their objectives if elected, rather than just focusing on admonishing their opposition.

Btw, I would be suspicious of those who have nothing to offer but criticism of the opposition and little to nothing in the way of ideas, policies and proposals. Where you find campaigns focusing on criticism you will often find a focus on rhetoric and slogans as a cover for their hidden agenda, which is usually more neoliberalism or corporatocracy.

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    Please, add a link/reference to the claim that "psychologists tell us" what you go on to claim that they tell us. I am also not familiar with a good psychological definition of "hate" other than as a variation on disgust. So if you could add a link showing that psychologists actually view "hate" as its own emotion, that would be informative. – grovkin Oct 13 '20 at 11:16
  • @grovkin: this answer is too formulaic for me to upvote, but what you're complaining about is just silly; hatred is not the same as disgust in any serious psychological perspective and lots have been written about hatred separately journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1754073917751229 (maybe "moral disgust" in one opinon/take, but there are plenty of other ways to classify/conceptualize hatred) – Fizz Jan 28 at 2:49

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