Why Campaigns Have To Be Negative

Les Cohen

December 26, 1990|By Les Cohen

COLUMBIA. — YOU'RE A CANDIDATE -- of the highest integrity. You're considering proposals to ''attack,'' yes, that's the right word, to attack your opponent. Let's not mince words here. You are considering saying negative things about the person you are running against, loud and clear, to make sure the voters hear you.

No one is suggesting that your campaign lie about anything. No one is asking you to attack your opponent's personal life. No one even wants you to exaggerate or color the truth. Your only, simple objective is to make certain that the public clearly understands precisely who your opponent is politically and what his or her priorities are likely to be if elected.

Negative campaigning, you say to yourself, is not your style. You would prefer to focus the public's attention on the positive aspects of your own candidacy, leaving it for the people to discern for themselves the differences between the candidates.

Besides, you rationalize, the public doesn't like negative campaigning. Don't the people admire and respect your high ethics and positive-thinking personality? Of course they do. Attacking your opponent could backfire, severely undermining your personal appeal among the electorate.

On the other hand, these losses might be more than offset by defections in your favor from the undecided ranks and from your opponent's constituency. The net gain may be just what you need. In a close race, even the shift of a few hundred votes could make the difference.

Negative campaigning. You're damned if you do, and damned if you don't.

Let's think about it for a moment. First of all, if you don't point out your opponent's shortcomings, who will? Certainly not your opponent. The press might, but you can't count on it. They need to remain neutral. They have a lot to cover and certainly your race isn't as important to them as it is to you.

If your campaign doesn't bring your opponent's deficiencies to the public's attention, chances are excellent these problems will not be a factor in the election. That's all there is to it. Voter education will be lacking and the voters may not make an intelligent choice. More to the point, they may not support your candidacy to the extent they would if they knew the entire story.

Then there is the pace of modern times and the onslaught of media and other information which have become part of our daily routine. Over-stressed and over-exposed, the voters' senses have become dulled. ''Maxed out'' by the regular business of life, voters have become intellectually insensitive to any but the most blatant statements. They have neither the inclination nor the time to discover differences between the candidates on their own. That's the campaign's job, and the responsibility of the press, but to a lesser extent. For all intents and purposes, the voters only know what you tell them.

To be more precise, voters only know what they hear and see, in the papers and on radio an television. To attract their attention, you're going have to do considerably more than make polite and eloquent statements, alluding ''with all due respect'' to significant differences between you and your opponent.

No. Advertising is advertising, and campaigning is no exception. You need to be clever without being cute. You need to be direct and to the point. You're going to have to be loud and clear. The price of media being what it is, you're going to have only a few seconds to make your point. Nothing subtle works. If you're not careful, even the simplest, most straightforward observation about your opponent's experience or proposals can come off sounding like the prelude to a Saturday WWF wrestling free-for-all.

Believing what they will, the voters make up their minds on the real issues, maybe, but more than likely based on the superficial images and impressions the candidates have fed them. However intelligent and well-meaning, it's the best even the most responsible voter can be expected to do. Like cooking for someone who needs to put more and more seasoning on his food just to achieve the same level of taste, a 1990s campaign finds itself almost having to slap the voters in the face to get their attention.

Busy and under enough stress as it is, the last thing the voter needs is the additional task of figuring out whom to vote for. The voters are the candidates' customers. If you want their business, so to speak, it's up to you to make it as easy as possible for them to support your point of view.

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