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When Campaigns Go Bad

By Greg L | 24 August 2011 | Virginia Politics | 15 Comments

Conventional wisdom would say that going negative in a campaign is a good strategy, but the caveat that what you go negative with better really be worth it seems far less remembered.  Several campaigns dabbled in the negative this primary cycle and saw once again how this maxim plays out in Virginia to their detriment.

As a blogger, I love digging up dirt on local candidates and subjecting them to as much scrutiny as possible.  To me this is a vital function bloggers perform for the electorate, and if someone wants to dig into all the material about a candidate beyond the glittering generalities campaigns put out printed on glossy cardstock, blogs are where you should be able to find that.  Only a small portion of the electorate ever bothers, but it’s a resource for the relatively few people that want to cast a highly informed vote.

Campaigns are, and must be entirely different.  They’re not about dishing out dirt on candidates, but promoting one by dishing out (almost exclusively) a steady diet of positive messaging.  When campaigns go negative, that decision has to be very seriously considered, especially with an electorate like this.  The potential for voter backlash is high in Virginia, so whatever the bad stuff a campaign is putting out about an opponent better be much stronger than the potential backlash.

Moore Common Sense has a very interesting and lengthy discussion about how going negative in the 13th Senate District probably cost John Stirrup the 113 vote margin that put Dick Black over the top.  Attacking Dick Black for an obscure and not terribly significant vote raising expense stipends for members of the General Assembly didn’t make a whole lot of sense to voters and certainly didn’t make them like Dick Black any less.  In a campaign where all three candidates were well liked by the electorate, trying to drive up negatives on an opponent with something they don’t care a whole lot about seriously risks a backlash, and there was one in this race.

Stirrup lost a critical amount of support because of his campaign tactics. The bulk of the district is in Loudoun County. This is Dick Black’s home turf so he has an inherent advantage in Loudoun. However, there were enough Loudoun County voters who like Dick Black, but felt it was time to go with youth and energy. Their numbers were enough to tip the balance of this election in Stirrup’s favor. His mailers attacking Dick Black destroyed all that support in Loudoun County.

The key takeaway for me wasn’t necessarily that Stirrup went negative, but the ammo he used was a fizzle rather than a bang.  With Dick Black there really isn’t any powerful ammo you can throw at him in a Republican primary, so why the campaign reached for this when it probably was slightly ahead is beyond me.  It may have tipped the race.

Other campaigns went negative when they shouldn’t and ended up either getting no benefit, or hurt themselves badly as well.  Tito Munoz ran a very negative campaign picking utterly stupid topics to go negative on, such as Jeff Frederick not being sufficiently Hispanic to represent the 36th District.  That’s not a tactic that will drive down Frederick’s popularity, but it sure did hammer Tito pretty hard.  Tito had a great story to tell that appeals to broad audiences that span ethnic lines.  Instead of focusing on that, he tried to pound on Jeff Frederick with pretty ridiculous attacks that backfired almost universally leading in part to a 69-31% drubbing.

The Gainesville Supervisor race featured late negative campaigning in an effort for Martha Hendley after polling showed her down by probably about 10%, which is still within striking distance.  The electorate yawned at the information and the back-and-forth between the Hendley and Candland campaigns probably did little more than depress turnout from both camps a bit.  When Hendley could have been talking about specific actions she took on the Planning Commission and their beneficial effect they had on the county, she instead was spending time and energy (including several FOIA requests to Supervisor Stirrup’s office) complaining about Candland’s attendance at budget committee meetings.  Candland ended up winning by about 10%.  The attacks went nowhere.

Negative campaigning works in Virginia, but it only works when the attacks are strong and the information is perfectly accurate.  Break these rules and it hurts the campaign, particularly in a place like this.  I’m surprised more campaigns don’t demonstrate much mastery of this concept, and until they do a lot of campaigns are going to continue to make bad decisions that can change the outcome of an election.



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15 Comments

  1. G.Stone said on 24 Aug 2011 at 12:06 pm:
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    Correct .

  2. Robert L. Duecaster said on 24 Aug 2011 at 12:31 pm:
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    John picked a race in unfamiliar terrain. He would have done much better had his home been kept in Colgan’s district and he took that man on in November, despite the conventional wisdom that Colgan can’t be beaten Had he lost that fight, he still could be doing good things as Supervisor. It wasn’t a bad tactical decision that caused him to lose, it was a flawed strategy from the outset.

    “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
    But in ourselves, that we are underlings.”

  3. Gnarly said on 24 Aug 2011 at 2:22 pm:
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    John Stirrup lost the race when he hired Creative Direct as his direct mail firm…..the kings of re-tread mailpieces and attacks. They take that same, tired payraise attack, dust it off, and use that in every legislative race they work in.

  4. Anonymous said on 24 Aug 2011 at 5:03 pm:
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    The idea that som e have that going negative is good is why politics has dengenerated into the cesspool it has become.

    Personally I don’t like negative campaigning and have (and will again) vote against a mudslinger.

  5. Dittyman8 said on 25 Aug 2011 at 4:09 am:
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    Greg:

    I agree with your point about Tito lame claim that Jeff wasn’t Hispanic enough. What Tito seemed to ignore that the 36th Senate District is about 78% non-Hispanic and most of them were turned off but his attempt to make the debate in Spanish and his attacks on Jeff’s bids for contracts through Section 8a. By the way, the business represented by the bids represented a tiny portion of Jeff’s overall business and he was perfectly within his legal rights to make such a bid. Tito never made a positive case for voting for him if you weren’t Latino.

    BTW, I got Toddy Puller’s campaign literature last night. Same old stuff recycled again (e.g. She’s Chesty Puller’s daughter-in-law, therefore we have to vote for her. She made it almost sound like her husband was still alive.) No mention of her individual legislative achievements. Can anyone clue me in on those or don’t they exist? No mention of her agenda other than she “supports” military families and veterans. Since she is supposely working the Commonwealth level, I’m more interested in what’s she’s doing for me as a Resident of Virginia than as a retired Navy officer.

  6. Loudoun Lady said on 25 Aug 2011 at 7:30 am:
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    Good analysis Greg. Lessons learned for all.

  7. VA_Magoo said on 25 Aug 2011 at 8:01 am:
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    I feel that candidates that have to resort to “negative” campaigns to run have nothing to stand on. I prefer a candidate tell me what his/her qualities are, what he/she will do, what they wont do. I guess I just want them to be honest. I know that is hard for them to imagine, I am sick and tired of the politicians that say anything to get elected and then do whatever they want once in office.

  8. Independent Thinker said on 25 Aug 2011 at 8:50 am:
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    Does anyone read John Gray’s ads in the news messenger? I am not sure what he would do, except maybe “not what the board is doing now”. I guess this this is the “Not Bush” concept. Until he tells me what he would do, he won’t get another look from me.

  9. Greg L said on 25 Aug 2011 at 9:09 am:
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    Dittyman, that sounds a lot like a mailer Puller sent out about 8-10 years ago and it had medals all over it. Can you scan that piece and email it to me?

  10. Independent Thinker said on 25 Aug 2011 at 9:28 am:
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    My only communication with Toddy Puller’s office resulted in a fairly inadequate reply both in tone and substance. It wasn’t during an election and one would not think that a Senator’s office would treat a constituent over whether a state Senator had voted about issue and why she might have voted the way she did. The answer I got was “she voted for it, what is there to explain?”

    That’s really good constituent services.

  11. steve said on 25 Aug 2011 at 9:44 am:
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    Targeted attacks have their place as a campaign tactic, but as a general strategy it suggests a candidate (or consultants) too lazy to figure out what they bring to the table and more focused on getting elected rather than actually governing.

  12. Lovettsville Lady said on 25 Aug 2011 at 9:10 pm:
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    Great analysis. That’s exactly what happened in Loudoun. First, Stirrup failed to campaign in Loudoun and Dick Black was out and about meeting voters. Then Stirrup went negative, with silly mailers trying to paint Dick Black as some kind of spendthrift liberal. That was it for Stirrup. FitzSimmonds won more precincts in Loudoun than Stirrup. Did Stirrup win any precincts in Loudoun? What a shame. Stirrup held such promise and he still might, but not in Loudoun.

  13. Dittyman8 said on 26 Aug 2011 at 3:46 am:
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    Greg L:

    I apologize, I already threw it in the trash with the rest of the junk mail. When I get another, I’ll sent it to you. No medals this time. Mostly old pics of her, one of them of her and her father who was an Army officer. FYI, she’s already having signs planted in the area, especially around the DMV at Caton Hill. I guess she’s taking Jeff Frederick seriously as a threat.

  14. NoVA Scout said on 26 Aug 2011 at 5:21 am:
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    Will Frederick’s management of RPV when he was Chairman cost him the Republican vote? Or is that something that just goes down the memory hole?

  15. VA Blogger said on 26 Aug 2011 at 3:51 pm:
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    How do we feel the race would have gone if FitzSimmonds wasn’t in? Sometimes three-way races are just tricky, especially when two candidates share a geographic base that’s a minority of the district.

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