To Be or Not To Be (negative)…That is the Question
As you may know, I ran for U.S. Congress in the 2012 election cycle. Does that make me an expert on political campaigns? Well, not really… I did go to training before I ran, and had always followed politics closely. Although that really helped me become educated on the strategy and management of a campaign, it did not make me an expert on this question.
Should a campaign go negative?
Who is the best judge of that? You are! The American Citizens who can (legally) vote are the best judges of what makes a good campaign.
Because the electorate is the best judge of good and bad campaigns, and because the (legal) electorate is comprised of American Citizens, then the answer to that question changes with the times. As anyone with a television, smart phone, or any other media knows, the views of the American society are constantly changing…and have really been changing at warp speed since the mid ‘60’s (and yes, I just made a layered nerd reference).
Although I don’t normally talk about specific campaigns or candidates, I will here, just to illustrate a couple of points. This does NOT constitute an endorsement for any candidate or party, but is merely a discussion of the particular tactics or issues affecting a campaign for illustrational purposes.
Don’t think that a political campaign is just the candidate…s/he may be the star of the show, but there is an entire team that makes up the campaign. Generally there is a campaign manager (and maybe a deputy or two), communications director (media, messaging), finance director, political director, other senior staff positions and consultants, as well as an army of general campaign staff and volunteers.
The decisions on how the campaign is run has a lot of input from a lot of folks…although the candidate can override anything at any time, and is ultimately responsible for their campaign.
The strategy of the campaign has several of these folks in what is generally known as the “Kitchen Cabinet”. That doesn’t mean a cabinet on the wall…it comes from the fact that most campaigns start as an idea that the candidate shares with some of their closest friends and advisors, many times around a kitchen table at the beginning. These advisors are much like the Cabinet that a President has, so they’re called the Kitchen Cabinet – which I’ll call the KC here. Typically the candidate, campaign manager, finance director, communications director, and political director are in that group, although some of them may not be, and other folks may be…it’s pretty much up to the candidate.
Most of the strategy of the campaign will come from 1) the candidate – their views, positions, personality, etc.; and 2) the KC. All the critical parts of the strategy depend on the funding (Finance Director), political outlook and positions (Political Director), how the messages are put together and put out to the media and other outlets (Communications Director), and how the actual campaign is run (Campaign Manager).
Another big issue with campaigns is the opposition. There will be opposition within the respective party (in the Primaries), and with the opposing party or parties (throughout the full campaign, but with a major focus in the General election). A maxim in opposition planning is to define yourself before the other candidate(s) have a chance to, and to try to define the other candidate(s) before they are able to define themselves and their message / policies.
You’ve seen that in the current Presidential campaign, over and over. Donald Trump poking fun at or talking about his opponents (Jeb Bush – boring; Rick Perry – needs new glasses, a failure on the border; etc.). These may or may not be true, but they’re out there, so those who are on the receiving end of those comments are forced to try to defend themselves and their record. What is the goal here? To make your opponents go on the defensive and play catch-up while you move ahead with additional statements, and appear to be the one in control. These are examples of personal “attacks”, which are usually effective, but have a potential of backfiring and making the attacker look mean and petty. I personally do not like this particular tactic, and believe that it brings the entire discussion down from the conference table into the mud. However, a many people enjoy this type of exchange (lots of folks watch Jerry Springer and other “reality” shows).
Another tactic is to find chinks in the armor of the opposition, and exploit those. Anyone who has seen any news knows that Hillary Clinton is under fire for using her personal email server and account for government purposes, for not being forthcoming on the events during the attack on the American Embassy in Benghazi while she was Secretary of State, and a few other issues. Her opponents in both the opposing party, as well as her own party have seized on those issues, and continue to hammer at them at every chance. This tactic can make the candidate who is raising the issue(s) seem to be outraged (great tactic), and looking out for the constituents; and can make the candidate who is under fire for their generally self-caused faults seem to be disingenuous at best, and untruthful or criminal at worst. If the issues raised are genuine, then I don’t have a problem with this tactic. Candidates should be forthright, and transparent. They are putting themselves out there to represent the constituents, and those constituents have the right to know if their representative is honest, and that they will faithfully represent them. Depending on how heated these exchanges get, they can draw a large following.
One of the best tactics is to talk about policies. Candidates can talk about what the other person is not doing or is doing wrong, or if they are really good, they can talk about what they would do differently – especially if they describe their policies in detail. This is the highest form of political debate, but for a large portion of the current audience, this is boring. Generally those who are close followers of or who are involved with politics will really enjoy these debates, but the general viewer is not necessarily as familiar with all the technicalities of the policies, and the personalities (and even the looks) of the candidates have more meaning for most folks.
So should campaigns and candidates go negative? I don’t know. What is negative by the standards of today’s society, and what do audiences enjoy most today? I’ll admit, I’m old fashioned, and enjoy a good, clean, respectful policy based discussion of facts…but then I’m just one guy… The elections will tell what the majority thinks.