Presidential Campaign

Are negative campaign ads helpful to voters?


Negative advertising works. After all, why would campaigns spend millions of dollars on it if it were not effective in moving the needle on the polls and translating into votes? The ads are part of how campaigns convince the public to vote for their candidate or at least vote against their opponent.

But apart from the effectiveness of negative advertising, the more important questions are why it works, whether it is beneficial to the voters, and whether it is a good thing for American democracy.

{mosads}We’re certainly seeing an unusually high number of negative ads this year from Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton – the two candidates with the highest unpopularity ratings of any previous candidates for president.

Both campaigns have plenty of negative material with which to work. Interestingly, in some of their advertising, both Clinton and Trump have relied purely on the words spoken by their opponent. Trump has run an ad showing Clinton speaking about the “basket of deplorables,” and Clinton has run numerous ads using actual footage of Trump’s frequent intemperate rants.

While presidential campaigns have traditionally involved negativity, this year is unprecedented in quantity, visibility (thanks to Twitter), and the degree of viciousness, primarily attributed to the inflammatory rhetoric of Donald Trump.

We have to go back all the way to the 1912 campaign that pitted incumbent Republican President William Howard Taft against Progressive Theodore Roosevelt, and Democrat Woodrow Wilson to begin to approach this year’s rhetoric. And even then, 1912 pales in comparison to 2016. Certainly, the unfiltered Roosevelt did not dignify his reputation as a former president by calling Taft a “fathead,” “puzzlewit,” and claiming that he had the “brains of a guinea pig.” Taft was stung deeply by his former friend’s attacks, and counter-attacked. Roosevelt was a “dangerous demagogue,” “dangerous egotist,” and Taft warned that he “is to be classed with the leaders of religious cults.”

Even Wilson got into the act describing Roosevelt as “a very erratic comet now sweeping across the horizon.” Roosevelt returned the volley charging that the mild-mannered Wilson was “a vague, conjectural personality, more made up of opinions and academic pre-possessions than of human traits and red corpuscles.”

Without television or Twitter, their inflammatory attacks against one another didn’t reach a broad swath of the electorate, and did not rise to the rhetorical levels of this year, when large segments of the population have been vilified.

Going negative with advertising allows a campaign to create a story and narrative about their opponent. A major part of political marketing is developing a negative brand for one’s opponent. According to Dr. Michael Artime, visiting assistant professor of political science at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington, “negative ads are one of the many tools deployed by campaigns to create a counter-narrative to the pristine story posited by their opponent.”

At their core, negative advertisements are aimed at producing an emotional and visceral response from the voters. They are not known for encouraging intellectual and rational decision making.

In 1964, Lyndon B. Johnson’s re-election campaign famously ran the highly controversial but effective 60 second “Daisy Girl” ad. A three-year old girl is counting petals from a daisy and pulling them off the flower. It could be anyone’s daughter. She is the perfect image of innocence.

A man’s voice then counts backwards from ten to one as part of a missile launch countdown, followed by the image of a horrific nuclear explosion, with President Johnson’s voice in the background warning that “we must either love each other or we must die.” It ends with a narrator urging voters to vote for Johnson, warning that “the stakes are too high for you to stay home.”

The ad stirred up a deep fear among the voters – fear that Republican Barry Goldwater was a warmonger and would engulf the country and world in a nuclear holocaust with his poor judgment, and the innocence of American lives (as exemplified by the “Daisy Girl”) could be wiped out in an instant.

The ad affirmed the concern of many that Goldwater’s judgment could not be trusted with the nuclear codes. The Clinton campaign has just released an ad echoing the “Daisy Girl” ad and including comments from the now grown up “Daisy Girl,” Monique Corzilius Luiz. Clinton is attempting to paint Trump as a dangerous choice to have the nuclear codes, just as LBJ sought to do with Goldwater.

Is scaring the electorate into fear and concern about the candidate’s judgment helpful to the voters? In one sense, yes, but in another sense no. Let me explain. The benefit is that negative advertising encapsulates the sometimes unexpressed Achilles’ heel of one’s opponent. Certainly, voters should make their decisions not just based on policy positions, but on character, judgment, experience, and the ability of a candidate to accomplish their agenda.

Negative advertising can be helpful in framing or validating people’s concerns about with a candidate. It takes certain truths and weaves them together into a less than flattering narrative that sticks with the electorate much longer than a candidate’s policy paper.

George W. Bush’s takedown ad of John Kerry in 2004 turned Kerry’s sometimes nuanced positions into a negative, branding him as a flip-flopper. The image of Kerry windsurfing was accompanied by a list of Kerry’s contradictory positions on specific issues. The Bush ad highlighted an underlying fear that Kerry was an unprincipled politician who took positions “whichever way the wind blows.”

Negative ads are effective, especially with undecided or independent voters, in branding a candidate’s weaknesses. However, such ads, which flirt with the edge of truth to score emotional points and win votes, are not proud moments in the great American experiment in democracy. Our hope is that campaigns would be conducted with all due decorum, and focus on the issues, as well as on the positive reasons why a candidate is better able move the country forward.

Looking back at the famous debates between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, at the dawn of the television age, we are struck with how civil they were. While Nixon was known for his ruthless political behavior, at the first debate he emphasized that it was important to “understand throughout this campaign that his [JFK’s] motives and mine are sincere…our disagreement is not about the goals for America but only about the means to reach those goals.” This type of language has certainly been missing from the 2016 campaign.

In our age of television, Internet, and social media, rational discourse about our country’s challenges and the solutions to them has unfortunately become antiquated. Technology enables not only high quality production values and manipulative advertising, but instant communications through social media.

Social media is the newest way for candidates to advertise, and distribution is free, unlike costly television ads. But both social media and television enable a candidate and their supporters to push the bounds of truth. Messages are disseminated that may not be true. For example, at rallies of Donald Trump, the frequent mantra about Hillary Clinton is to “lock her up” for her email “crimes.”

Clinton supporters rail against Trump’s sexual assaults and fraudulent business practices. In our highly partisan world, we seem to have forgotten that ours is a nation where due process is important. We do not convict people, regardless of highly partisan political opinions, on the basis of unproven charges. Facts and truth matter, and twisting them beyond recognition in emotional appeals to win votes is ultimately short-sighted for the health of the nation.

Negative advertising plays on the public’s deep emotional fears to craft a story and expose the weaknesses of an opponent. It is certainly effective and millions of dollars are spent on it, often stretching truth to the breaking point. This year’s campaign has been the most negative and vitriolic campaign in American history. While negative campaigning has its place, we can only hope for a more civil and rational discourse about the future of our nation in the years to come.

Mike Purdy is a presidential historian and the founder of  He is a frequent and popular speaker and is often quoted by the media about presidential history and politics, including CNN, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and Reuters.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill. 

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