Negative Campaigning for Local Office - dummies

Negative Campaigning for Local Office

By Dan Gookin

The negative campaign seems to be an American tradition, but what does negative campaigning really mean? You hear the terms attack ads and mudslinging. Often, they apply to anything critical.

Most negative campaign material is based in fact. It’s only that the target doesn’t like the facts pointed out that makes things seem “negative.” And, of course, getting personal or fabricating mischief is also considered going negative, but in a vicious way. You must ask yourself if you need to do so to win and how effective such a strategy will be.

My advice is to run for local office on your own merits. Stay positive by showcasing your strengths and positions. This posture doesn’t prevent your opponent from going negative on you, though, which is why you should know the turf even if you don’t plan on trotting over it.

What does “going negative” mean?

You (the challenger) can be accused of going negative if you point out a disgruntled incumbent’s dismal public record. In this case, the information is fair game. Like anything subjective, however, a spectrum exists for anything labeled an attack.

On the fair-criticism side of the spectrum, any elected official’s public record, well-documented, is fair game. “My opponent has consistently voted for every property tax increase.” Such a statement isn’t an attack, though your opponent may think so.

The unfair side of the spectrum includes inuendo and outright slander. For example, bringing up an old public drunkenness charge is fair, but you must consider how it will play. Does the voter already know? How old is the charge? Better: Are you guilty of the same — or worse — sin?

Going negative can also backfire. In a recent local race, a challenger criticized the incumbent for missing too many meetings. It turns out the incumbent was quite ill and spent weeks convalescing. In this example, the attack generated sympathy for the incumbent and derision toward the challenger, who eventually apologized. Not good.

  • Never attack your opponent personally.
  • Pointing out a fact isn’t mudslinging, though you may be accused of it. Mudslinging itself is a series of unjust insults designed to damage an opponent’s reputation. If someone accuses you of mudslinging, it’s acceptable for you to clarify your statements as free from mudslinging.

Can you slander a political candidate?

As a candidate for office, you’re considered a public person. As such, slander against you isn’t actionable in court. People can and will say anything about you. If you threaten to sue, you show the voting public that your skin is far too thin to handle an elected position.

People have the right to criticize and to even make up stuff about public officials. What people don’t have a right to do is maliciously attack them: Malicious slander is actionable in court. The problem, however, is to determine what is malicious. Typically, your slanderer must demonstrate a pattern of animosity toward you.

The good news is that truly slanderous, not to mention maliciously slanderous, attacks are rare in local elections. They show desperation and are a turnoff for many voters.

Accept that some people don’t like you

Running for office introduces you to a new class of people: those you don’t know who don’t like you. It’s amazing, but suddenly, and only because you dared run against someone they like, people will come out opposed to you and dream up all sorts of reasons to dislike you. This fact you must accept.

“Friends may come and go, but enemies accumulate” — Anonymous

As a candidate, you may find yourself reintroduced to people you’ve wronged in the past. Maybe you’ve forgotten the incident. They haven’t. Be prepared for them to make noise about it.

Some people, however, may dislike you for no rational reason. You may find them popping up like weeds on social media or in the paper. Don’t bother trying to understand why they dislike you. Merely accept it and move on. These people aren’t voting for you anyway. Trying to change their minds is a waste of time.

Negative attack piece

One campaign tactic is to hit your opponent with a negative or attack piece during the last week of the election. This strategy provides little time for the opponent to respond, though with the Internet and social media, the capability to address a last-minute attack is stronger than ever.

If you decide to unleash your wrath, do it as positively as possible. One tactic is to list two columns, one for you and one for your opponent. You compare and contrast policy differences between you, which is fair and not negative (though it’s selective). The following figure shows an example.

Negative candidate comparison

An “attack” comparison piece.Going full-on negative probably isn’t necessary. It may be seen as a sign of desperation, especially if the attacks are personal or flat-out incorrect. It’s best to stay on point unless the entire campaign has been a giant mudfest, in which case the voters are disgusted anyhow.

  • Going negative is easy, which is why so many candidates do it.
  • Negative attacks work both ways: they attack your opponent, but they also reflect upon you. It’s easy to lose support if you suddenly go negative.
  • The consequence of criticizing someone is that they’ll naturally become defensive and deny or justify their behavior. Don’t let this happen to you! The defense doesn’t play the game to score a touchdown.
  • The voters remember a negative campaign. It builds resentment that doesn’t disappear, even if you should win.

Prepare your defense

You’ve been attacked. Your opponent or one of their supporters has decided to take the campaign to a nasty level. They accuse you of starting it, of course, but offer no proof. You’re left determining how best to defend yourself or whether it’s even necessary.

You may be able to guess what’s coming. If so, you’ve prepared a defense and are ready with a press release or another way to address the issue. Being prepared is truly the best way to deal with a legitimate issue.

Don’t waste time worrying about a false accusation. Sure, anyone can make up anything and hurl it your way. Odds are good, however, that no one will fabricate something against you. You may catch wind of something from the rumor mill. If so, and if the accusation isn’t true, it’s a ruse designed to divert your attention. Ignore it.

If need be, meet with your campaign team and discuss how best to deal with potential problems. You may find that voters in local elections have a strong distaste for nasty politics. The problem may resolve itself.