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COLUMN: The Art of Negative Campaigning

The following article is an opinion piece and reflects the views of only the author and not necessarily those of AllOnGeorgia.

Negative campaigning. It’s an art – one we all hate, love to hate, but probably most importantly – hate to love.

Every time campaign season comes around, regardless of which level of government, we all cringe and say “it’s never been this bad,” but a few candidates and/or elected officials get smeared, the rest of us survive, and we go back to our lives until the next time around.

The art of negative campaigning is a pillar of the political game.

So what is negative campaigning?

These days, negative campaigning seems to fall into the category of any tactic or approach to campaigning that involves the person(s) another is running against and offends any person, anywhere on any issue, regardless of whether it affects them or if they are registered to vote.

No, but seriously.

In reality, the most concise way to tell you what it is is to actually show you what it isn’t.

It isn’t voting records, campaign donations, publicly posted policy positions, references to social media account activity, a list of endorsements, or use of previously recorded statements. Also not included in the list is polling results.

These are all things that actually happened. They are verifiable facts that actually took place in the world we live in and someone was present to document or record it as a moment in history. That may sound like an extreme definition, but it’s true. And it always irks me when voting records are considered negative campaigning. If someone feels that it’s negative campaigning for another to bring up a vote they cast, perhaps the vote just had a negative impact and the candidate doesn’t want to talk about it. A vote, in and of itself, cannot be negative. Neither can a donor list. A choice was made to cast a vote and to accept a donation or endorsement. There is room in politics to challenge choices.

In fact, if you’re challenging an incumbent, a voting record should be the base camp and everything should flow from there. If you’re trying to make the case that someone should be sent home from their position – whether it be city council member or Congressman – your reasoning should be rooted in concrete information that actually took place, not because you want power or you dislike the person who holds the seat. That concept is not negative.

What is negative is distorted lies, half-truths, attacks on family, involvement of children, sexual preference, whisper campaigns, integrating fake organizations, faceless anonymous social media accounts, hit piece websites with no disclaimer about who is paying for them, news stories that resemble a campaign message more than an unbiased report, clipped robocalls with a scary voice from anonymous people, or things that aren’t relevant to actually serving in office.

Every election season, we see unaffected third-parties infiltrate local communities, whether it be a corporation or powerful lobbying organization flooding a county over an airport issue, an independent political action committee trying to sway the outcome of a House or Senate seat, or anonymous mailers making harsh accusations in the Governor’s race. We can’t always put it right into a box, but claim we know negative campaigning when we see it. We recognize it when that certain feeling comes over us at the mailbox or in the news feed.

But what really matters is whether or not it works.

Campaign staffers and consultants – those earning money off of tarnishing the images of others – say it does. The notion is that, voters don’t like the negative ads but perceptions are still changed after they are exposed to the information. Perhaps it’s even more beneficial for those who take credit for the negative attack ads because their name ID is boosted, too. And of course, political pundits like it because it offers content for discussion.

But I’m not convinced it always works.

Of course, each time it happens, there are claims of the exhaustion from “politics as usual,” but I’m not sure that’s the reason people resist negative campaigning. Sometimes it may be because it’s too late in the game and supporters are solidified, other times because the negativity hits on all the wrong issues. But when it fails, the idealist in me has to believe it fails because the attacker made a victim out of the person on the receiving end. Plus, we all wonder how it doesn’t hurt the person leveraging the attacks and if they’re so empty and unprincipled inside that they can’t discuss the positives of themselves.

Okay, maybe that’s a bit harsh.

Negative campaigning works best on those who already weren’t supporting the person being attacked. That’s who carries the message, shares it on social media, tells a friend at church….”Did you hear…??”

Yes, Susan. We all received the mailer.

But everyone else, all the undecided voters, they’re drowning in a sea of information that is presented beautifully well – often over and over – from people they don’t know. More than likely, if they’re still undecided, it’s because they aren’t an ‘insider’ and they don’t live and breathe the political game every day like some of us. It doesn’t make them wrong, it just puts them in a different position to digest negative campaigning. And we all know far too well that the undecided voter is beyond unpredictable.

So the ‘Art of Negative Campaigning,’ I suppose, is that there really isn’t any ‘Art’ about it all and, depending on the demographics, the issues, the person running, the person leveraging the attacks, the people sharing the attacks after the attacks have been made, when the negative campaigning begins, whether or not it’s believable, whether or not it’s verifiable, and the overall outlook on life the voter has, it’s possible that it might work. The only guarantee is that voters – and non-voters – collectively unite to pray that Election Day…or a giant meteor…would just hurry up and get here.

Jessica Szilagyi is a former Statewide Contributor for

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