Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Negative Campaigning

There have been many comments about negative tactics in the 2008 US election

Of course this is nothing new

And what's wrong with negative campaigning anyway, providing it is based on an honest appraisal of your opponent's weaknesses?

Are negative tactics counterproductive, and did they backfire on this occasion? Do they damage the candidate who uses them, either during the election or when elected?
And do they work at all?

What's the purpose of negative tactics? There are two possible effects that negative campaigners might be aiming at. One is to reduce the approval ratings of your opponent, and the other is to discourage people from voting at all.

At least in this election, neither of these effects have materialized. Negative tactics were used on both sides, and yet both candidates seem to have ended the campaign with personal approval ratings over 50%. (McCain's campaign may have been dented by the widespread public perception that it was relying more than Obama's campaign on negative tactics, but many people seem willing to blame the party and the campaign team rather than the candidate himself. Who is the real McCain?)

And turnout has been staggering. When I vote in a British election it takes a few minutes, maybe ten minutes if I go at a busy time. I just cannot imagine any British elector being willing to stand in the cold and rain for three hours or more waiting to vote. What passion for democracy is expressed by a nation that is willing to stand in line for several hours in order to play with an unreliable voting machine.

(There is a cultural difference here. The British voting process is designed to save wasting the time of the electorate: we collect the votes as quickly and reliably as possible, and then spend all night counting and checking them. The US voting process is designed to get the result to the TV networks as quickly as possible. Americans are far more patient than the British when it comes to voting, but much more impatient to know the result. And yet in Britain the new elected leader takes over the following day, whereas in America the leader-elect has to wait a couple of months. Different subjective views of time and the proper amount of time things should take.)

What will campaigners remember about this election next time around, and what lessons will they learn? Will they abjure negative tactics - at least until they perceive their opponents doing it? Or will they just develop more sophisticated negative tactics?

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