Negative campaigning has a bad name. Every time a campaign releases an attack ad against its opponent or opponents, there’s usually a quick kerfuffle in the media about how it “went negative” and some high-minded chiding from the other side about how pathetic it was that the campaign had to stoop to that instead of making their own guy look good and selling himself on his merits.
Although it’s popular (and people seem to forget every other election they’ve ever been through every four to two years) to claim that negative campaigning is a modern product of television and sound-byte attention spans- we Americans are having to put up with this bullshit during our dinner hours because we’ve gotten so stupid and partisan we don’t deserve any better- cooler heads have pointed out that this tradition is as old as the country itself is. Political campaigns have always tried to make their guy look good by making the other guy look bad.
So, it’s not a new thing. That doesn’t invalidate the point of those lamenting that campaigns “have to stoop to such tactics”, but maybe a better question than “is it new?” is “is this something that works for a better reason than simply appealing to the basest fears and animosities of the voters?”
That would depend on what you mean by “a better reason”. The fact of the matter is that it DOES work and work extremely well, which is why campaigns keep doing it. Does it appeal to the worst in a voter? Maybe. That depends on what you think is “the worst”. Merely because a voter has fears does not mean that those fears aren’t completely legitimate ones, whether they’re fears that a candidate will raise your taxes, continue the policies of a corrupt and detested administration, use nukes, or govern as though they were National Pastor. Voters have every reason and right to take character, problematic public statements, frequent policy reversals, and other things into consideration- and campaigns have every right and reason to highlight their opponent’s weaknesses on these issues, since his own campaign will be trying to gloss those over just as hard as they’re trying to make the other guy look bad themselves. Does that extend to stretching, spinning, or outright torpedoing the truth? It shouldn’t, but it does… because it often works. That is the dirty side of negative campaigning, not the practice itself.
As for sticking to “the positive”, this isn’t as sound a tactic for a campaign as it first seems. The argument goes that if your guy is actually any good, he should be able to sell himself just fine this way- the problem is that, once in office, very few campaign promises are actually fulfilled. There is a good reason for this beyond “politicians are lying bastards”, of course; actual American government is run by thousands of people, not just one guy, and even if a candidate works himself to the bone trying to fulfill each promise, the odds are good that he won’t accomplish what he wanted to because others in government exercised their own power to stop him. This applies just as much to the executive branch, which depends primarily on Congress to actually draft and execute policy; even on areas that are exclusively the executive domain, such as foreign policy, the president can’t do much if Congress decides not to fund any of it. The voters, meanwhile, unless they’ve fallen in love with the candidate- which only happens to a minority of partisans- are extremely aware of this. Policy and promises are nebulous uncertainties- but character and track record are much more concrete right now.
Thus, the candidate must kiss babies, give handshakes, and flog himself trying to prove to three hundred million people, all of whom are of highly diverse background and beliefs, that he’s such a swell guy that he’s got all that character. The problem is that, thanks to that diversity, the same things that make one group’s heart swell with their candidate’s fabulous character make another’s shrivel with his obvious deficiencies. Is a candidate well-educated and well-spoken? He’s out of touch with the common man. Is he a man of strong faith and unwavering moral compass? He’s a religious demagogue with more devotion to a collection of antique shepherd’s tales than to common sense or the realities of a pluralistic society. Military veteran? General Ripper. Not a veteran? Pantywaist completely out of touch with the military he proposes to lead. Successful businessman? In the pocket of corporations. Lifelong politician? Scumbag Washington insider. First-time politician? Inexperienced naif. Trying to show his best side to as many groups as he can? Unreliable weathervane and an empty suit. Never compromises no matter what his audience? Tone-deaf boor who will be unable to work with other politicians or foreign powers. Almost any trait that’s a plus to one group is a minus to another- or at least, it can be spun that way.
Perhaps the best argument for negative campaigning actually lies in the mysterious and fickle group that everyone is courting the hardest in any election: the undecided middle. Most true “swing” voters aren’t swing voters because they’re ignorant of both candidates (they’d have to have made a deliberate effort to avoid coverage- unlikely to vote), and they’re not that way because they LIKE both candidates; there’s usually enough strong differences in background and policy between any two given candidates that it’s trivial for someone to decide who they like. No, the undecided middle is mostly the people who are trying to choose between a giant douche and a turd sandwich. In February, all three likely candidates had more people who were willing to vote against them than for them- in Hillary Clinton’s case, a much larger clear majority were more willing to vote against her than FOR anybody else!
The truly undecided are usually trying to decide just which son of a bitch they hate just that much more. And they are far more likely to react to negative campaigning than they are to react to attempts to polish the turd or make the douche smell a little sweeter- which is why it is with us, and why, if this election is not an anomaly, it probably always has been and always will be.