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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