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When politics becomes personal
By John J. Tassoni, Jr.
Mudslinging. Dirty politics. Character assassination. Smear campaigns. These are all names for negative campaigning, a tactic that seems to be the norm across all political venues depending on the dynamics of the contest.
Though there are a number of techniques used in negative campaigning, advertising that attacks an opponent’s personality, record, opinion or even physical appearance, is one of the most common methods used to slander an opponent.
Attack ads focus exclusively on any negative aspects of an opponent and contain no positive content and will usually identify the risks of electing the opponent. Contrast ads contain information about the candidate and the opponent, highlighting positive information about the candidate used in comparison with negative information about the opponent.
These and other attack tactics are designed to leave an impression on the voters to shape their decision at the polls.
Trickery is often used in negative campaigning as well. This generally involves secretly leaking damaging information to the media, who are bound not reveal sources, but will follow the lead and report the information. Even if the information proves to be false, an opponent will count on the notion that the initial accusation will remain in a voter’s mind.
Negative attacks are not new to political campaigns. The cavemen probably drew attack drawings on boulders to elect who would set the next fire. Through advancements in media and technology, the methods used for attack ads have increased and have become more immediate and wide.
Here are some examples of negative campaigning throughout history:
Supporters of John Quincy Adams distributed handbills against his opponent, Andrew Jackson, that called Jackson’s mother a prostitute and his wife an adulterer.
In 1936, the Republican party used negative radio advertising against the Democrats.
In 1964, the infamous Daisy ad, also known as the “Peace Little Girl ad,” was used by Lyndon Johnson in the presidential election, contending that opponent Barry Goldwater was planning to start a nuclear war.
Richard Nixon ran a “Convention Ad” against Hubert Humphrey in the 1968 presidential election.
A Willie Horton ad that used the issue of crime as a way to play a race card against Michael Dukakis was aired in the 1988 presidential election.
Attacks were made against George W. Bush’s military record in the 2004 presidential election.
Similarly, attacks were made against John Kerry’s Vietnam service record by some Navy Swift Boat veterans of the Vietnam War.
Jerry Kilgore’s pro-death penalty attack ad against his opponent, Tim Kaine, in the 2005 Virginia gubernatorial campaign used an invocation of Hitler.
In 2008, Hillary Clinton’s “3 a.m. phone call” ad questioned the crisis management skills of her opponent Barack Obama.
Also in 2008, Elizabeth Dole’s ad against challenger Kay Hagan for her Senate re-election campaign, called Hagan “Godless.”
Justin Amash was called “Al-Qaeda’s best friend in Congress” by his opponent Brian Ellis in 2014.
Already in this 2016 election season, we’ve seen and heard the candidates attacking each other in stump speeches, debates, and on social media. The print and radio ads will undoubtedly soon follow.
Having been in politics for more than 12 years, I know how detrimental attack ads can be to a political figure, his or her family, and the campaign itself. They waste a candidate’s time, resources and campaign financing trying to combat the negative attacks, and can take a toll on the person’s well-being and family life.
My advice to anyone running for office – stick to the issues, your platform and your plan for a greater good. This is what voters care most about. A politician who runs a clean campaign is always a winner, whether or not he or she wins the race. Ultimately, this is what you’ll want your legacy to be.
Here is a special message for all local political candidates– negative attack ads will not be accepted by any of the Sentinel Media Group’s publications, including The Smithfield Times and Common Ground.
We know that ads are crucial for your name recognition and message association, and we welcome you to use our pages to promote your campaign. We guarantee that we will uphold these high standards to help you build a positive and dignified campaign.
In the end, the voters are the final judges of what is appropriate in a political campaign. Let them remember yours as being a positive one.