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Electoral campaigns are primarily exercises in human psychology. As a candidate or political consultant, your job is to reach voters with the type of messaging that’s most likely to affect their behavior. The road to the hearts and minds of the electorate is paved with difficult decisions, and you’ll constantly wonder what approach would prove most impactful.
As you develop your electoral strategy, you’ll have to decide whether to use positive or negative marketing. Some campaigns are consistently positive, using optimistic language to inspire the electorate and maximize turnout. Others dip regularly into the bag of dirty tricks, attacking their opponents at every turn. Both approaches can prove successful.
You’ll need to evaluate the unique circumstances of your campaign before settling on an electoral strategy. The nature of the race, the depth of the competition, and the personality of the candidate should all play a role in the decision. It also helps to develop your strategy from a place of knowledge and wisdom. By learning more about positive and negative marketing, you’ll give yourself the best chance to develop an approach that works for you.
Positive Marketing: Increase Voter Turnout With an Optimistic Approach
Optimism is naturally attractive. People enjoy spending time around others who have a positive attitude toward life. Many political candidates have capitalized on this dynamic to inspire voters and boost their campaigns. By highlighting their strengths and talking about everything they would accomplish after winning, candidates make people excited to vote for them. This often translates into electoral success.
A positive, inspiring campaign is great for bringing people into the democratic process. Habitual non-voters could see your positive messaging and decide a trip to the polls might be worth it after all. While the effect on voter turnout isn’t always as big as you might hope, positive marketing can still make a meaningful difference.
Defining Positive Marketing
Positive political marketing foregoes attacks on opponents and focuses entirely on the candidate’s strengths. Instead of talking about how terrible the other person is, you inspire voters by reminding them how great you are. Not only does this approach allow you to emphasize your knowledge and experience, but it also creates a healthier environment around the entire election. When voters see someone engaging in positive marketing, they’re likely to perceive the candidate as “taking the high road.” In some cases, this perception carries over into victory at the polls.
Some campaigns commit to exclusively using positive marketing materials. Others mix in the occasional attack ad alongside more optimistic messaging. Whichever approach you choose, it’s vital to remember that the positivity or negativity of the marketing will have a significant impact on how voters perceive the candidate’s personality. That’s why it’s so important to get the balance right.
Historical Examples of Positive Political Messaging
While negative campaigns might receive disproportionate media attention, candidates have won with positive campaigns for generations. If you want to give your election strategy a positive tone, these are the candidates you should be using as your models.
Ken Hechler (1958)
When Ken Hechler first ran for the House of Representatives, he was new to the world of politics and a recent arrival to his district. He knew practically nobody in the area, and yet his tireless campaigning helped him prevail over two candidates with far greater cachet. Hechler went on to serve as an elected official for 34 more years. During that time, he perfected an electoral strategy built on positive messaging. He wanted his campaigns to be clean, and he wanted to disagree with his opponents in a constructive fashion. This commitment to positivity made him a uniquely appealing politician.
Deb Fischer (2012)
When Deb Fisher became the first Nebraska woman elected for a six-year Senate term in 2012, she did with the odds stacked squarely against her. She also did it with a positive campaign that was as uplifting as it was persuasive. Her primary opponents outspent her by a wide margin, and her general election counterpart was a well-known politician. Despite constant attacks from her opponents, Fisher maintained a commitment to a positive, issues-based campaign. Her considerable dignity and poise earned her respect from other politicians, and her victory in the election proved that candidates can survive vicious attacks without launching counter-offensives of their own.
Pat McCory (2012)
When Pat McCory ran for governor of North Carolina in 2012, he promised from the outset that he would run a positive campaign. This decision ultimately carried him to the highest office in the state. While other candidates may have turned the election into a nasty, partisan affair, McCory kept his discourse civil and received bipartisan support as a result. Rather than attacking his opponent, he talked incessantly about his own plans to improve the state. Far from being naive, this strategy turned out to be just what the North Carolina electorate was looking for.
The Benefits of a Positive Approach
For a political candidate, the most consequential benefit of positive marketing is that it can help increase voter turnout. People who have checked out of the political process might decide to vote if a candidate’s positive messaging is sufficiently inspiring. Studies have conclusively linked positive political ads with higher rates of participation at the polls. For candidates eager to tap the latent support of the disinterested masses, a positive campaign could be the perfect approach.
Another benefit of positive political messaging is that it boosts people’s enthusiasm for the democratic process. Research shows that voters dislike the effect that negative advertisements have on the political climate. By eschewing constant attacks and investing in positive messaging, you do your part to create the type of democratic culture that most Americans desire.
Negative Marketing: Turn Voters Against Your Opponents
As inspiring and effective as positive campaigning can be, the American political scene has always included plenty of negative campaigning. Candidates don’t employ this type of marketing because they enjoy being nasty. They do it because it works. When voters hear repeated attacks against a politician, they’re liable to be swayed. Some people might decide to transfer their support to another candidate. Others will simply decide to skip voting altogether. Both outcomes benefit the candidate who launches the attacks.
It’s no surprise that such an effective political technique has become so common. In the 2012 presidential election, an astonishing 80% of Obama’s and Romney’s campaign ads were negative. While it’s not always fun to take the low road, even candidates in smaller-scale elections should consider the potential benefits of attacking their rivals.
Defining Negative Marketing
Negative political marketing involves criticizing your opponent’s weaknesses rather than highlighting your own strengths. Often, negative campaigning consists of fair criticism leveled at an opponent’s record, inexperience, or mistakes. Sometimes, it devolves into a more sinister dispersal of lies or personal attacks. Both good-faith criticism and bad-faith slander can convince voters not to vote for the targeted candidate.
Negative Campaigning Throughout History
Negative marketing might be seen as nasty or distasteful, but it has a long history in American politics. There can only be one winner in an election, and candidates know that discrediting their rivals is often the key to success. These famous cases from national politics show just how effective negative campaigning can be.
Rivals first started calling Richard Nixon “Tricky Dick” during his 1950 senate campaign. While Nixon won that particular election, the unfortunate sobriquet stuck with him for the rest of his political career. Given the speed with which the American public turned against him after the Watergate scandal, it’s reasonable to assume that the nickname made an impression.
During the 2004 presidential election, John Kerry used his military experience during the Vietnam War to curry favor with Americans. In response to his claims of heroism, a group calling itself “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” insisted he hadn’t actually been a war hero at all. The group’s claims were later discredited, and the term “swiftboating” became a neologism for dishonestly smearing a political candidate.
Trump’s 2016 Nicknames
Throughout the famously tumultuous 2016 campaign, Donald Trump made a habit of giving his rivals and enemies unflattering nicknames. During the primary, Ted Cruz was known as “Lyin’ Ted,” while Jeb Bush became “Low-energy Jeb.” Hillary Clinton, Trump’s general election opponent, was “Crooked Hillary,” and progressive foil Elizabeth Warren was “Pocohantas.” While many found the nicknames offensive and out of place, the strategy delighted Trump’s fans and helped carry him into the White House.
Why a Negative Approach Can Work
The effectiveness of negative campaigning lies in basic human psychology. People form opinions based on how a person or issue has been framed for them. Every political candidate has their weaknesses, and every policy proposal has its downsides. If a candidate can put their opponents’ weakness on full display, at least some voters are likely to see their opinions change.
One main benefit of negative marketing is that it can affect voters across the political spectrum. Imagine you release a radio ad attacking your opponent. The people who were inclined to vote for you anyway will only double down on their commitment. People who were more likely to vote for your opponent, meanwhile, might consider sitting out the election if your ad hits home. By slightly increasing your own supporters’ resolve while reducing your opponent’s turnout, you can weaponize negative ads and eventually win the election.
Go Low or Go High?
The tone of your political campaign will have a massive effect on how people perceive your candidacy. If you focus exclusively on positive marketing, you can show win over reluctant voters and receive plaudits for your integrity. If you get down and dirty with attack ads, you can chip away at your opponent’s support until you’ve successfully beaten them. Most candidates adopt a combination of these two approaches.
With the right strategy, you can enjoy the benefits of both positive and negative marketing. Every candidate should be highlighting their strengths and inspiring the electorate. Savvy candidates are also happy to point out their opponents’ deficiencies. By drawing on both approaches, you can develop a unique strategy that optimizes your campaign.