The line is attributed to Alice Roosevelt Longworth, daughter of President Theodore Roosevelt. How very approriate.
I was remindeed of it today, as I read an article by Benedict Pringle in Campaign about negative advertising in political campaigns (is there any other kind?) He draws attention to the way Zac Goldsmith has been criticised for his negative approach in the campaign to become London Mayor. The winner, Sadiq Kahn had an unusually positive story to tell – essentially his biography; a rags-to-riches story of the son of a Pakistani bus driver who made good.
Pringle reckons negative campaigns have three arguments in their favour:
- People remember negatives better than positives
- Negative stories are more believable when it comes to politicians
- Negative stories are more likely to be passed on, generating extra reach
I don’t particularly disagree with any of this but it seems a bit strange to be justifying negative campaigning in this way when it is very much the default option. I can hardly think of any well-known political campaigns that haven’t railed against something or set out to scare the bejesus out of us in the event the other side should get in.
The last British general election provides a classic case. The polls were neck and neck and the Conservatives had been employing a scattergun approach, until they seized upon a winning tactic – namely frightening us with the prospect that a Labour win would bring effective power to the Scottish Nationalists (SNP). The rationale was that in a hung parliament (which we all expected) the SNP would inevitably forge a partnership with Labour and hold the balance of power. Despite both Labour and the SNP declaring they had no intention of forging any such alliance, it worked a treat and the Conservatives won.
Positive campaigns like that of Khan are few and far between. The upcoming US Presidential race is likely to be particularly dirty. But that is the norm.
This gives me another opportunity to remind you of the Daddy of them all: