Negative Campaigning Can Only Do So Much. Trump Should Know | Opinion

There's a good reason why candidates engage in negative campaigning: It works. Well, it works to a degree. Negative campaigning can raise the opponent's disapproval ratings on personal characteristics and issue management. It can throw the opposition off message and sometimes create a harmful narrative that must be addressed by utilizing precious campaign resources. That is why modern campaigns strive to keep the focus on the other guy. It's the offense that usually scores the points after all.

Presidential contenders can avail themselves of three different but overlapping general strategies: they can run based on what they've done (accomplishment), what they will do (vision/plans) and why they're better than the other guy (choice). The negative elements of the choice strategy involve attacking the opponent's ideology, age, or personal flaws.

The choice strategy is in use in the Trump campaign, which has leveled heavy attacks against Joe Biden, questioning both his mental fitness for office and his "radical" associations and positions. "Joe Biden is clearly diminished" screams one online ad. The president is seeking also to tie Biden to a number of diverse protest movements, some violent, advocating everything from the removal of historical statues on public lands to the defunding of local police departments. He doubled down on this strategy this past weekend in a very contentious interview with Chris Wallace of Fox News.

Yet it is also the case that a wholly negative national campaign is insufficient to guarantee victory. A review of past presidential campaigns seeking to define opponents as unacceptable ideologically or unfit to serve yields mixed results at best. The public is more concerned with pressing contemporary issues or how a candidate will deal with future challenges of war and peace.

Lyndon Johnson (1964) and Richard Nixon (1972) disposed of their opponents with strong ideological attacks on them for being "outside the mainstream." It worked—though the opponents, Barry Goldwater and George McGovern, cooperated with the strategy through unforced errors and statements that seemed to validate the charges. However, Johnson and Nixon also ran on their records of accomplishment—Johnson in steadying the country in the wake of John Kennedy's assassination and Nixon in extricating most American ground troops from Vietnam.

In 1980, President Jimmy Carter attacked Ronald Reagan for "right wing extremism" and his age. (Reagan would be 70 just after his inauguration, which is still younger than both Trump and Biden today.) Carter faced strong headwinds of a bad economy induced by soaring oil prices and a newly aggressive Soviet Union which had invaded and occupied Afghanistan. In the sole debate that year, Reagan turned aside the charges by appearing knowledgeable and unthreatening. The public judged him "acceptable," and Reagan wound up winning the election going away. While Reagan performed well, this is also an example of what can happen when candidate expectations and the electoral bar are set low, which may also be happening this year.

In 1992, President George H. W. Bush faced then unknown Governor Bill Clinton of Arkansas. Like Carter, the Bush years were marked by difficult economic circumstances, though he also had won the stunning victory in the first Gulf War against Iraq and Saddam Hussein. Bush stressed his experience but said little about a second term, maybe because the GOP had been in power for 12 years and many of its priorities had already been implemented. Bush's efforts instead focused on Clinton's checkered past which included student protests abroad against the war in Vietnam, pot smoking as a young man and allegations of multiple affairs-- a resume that did not scream "presidential material" at the end of the 20th century in America. Yet in his campaigning and in the presidential debates, Clinton turned in strong performances and won the election handily, despite public misgivings about some of his past activities.

Though not incumbents as the others, it is noteworthy that both Senator John McCain (2008) and Hillary Clinton (2016) vigorously sought to marginalize their opponents McCain attacked Barack Obama for lack of experience, a thin resume tinged with radical associations, and a "style over substance" campaign. Obama was articulate and confident, performed well in the debates and won handily, despite his brief time in the national spotlight and very general policy proposals—providing another example of what can happen when negative attacks lower candidate expectations and the electoral bar.

In 2016, the Clinton campaign threw the book at Trump, someone who had never before sought public office. There was admittedly much material for her to use. Trump had little political experience and his policy views on most issues were unknown. During the campaign, his brash style and frequent feuds with detractors, movie stars, and even many Republicans, created endless controversies that would have torpedoed most other campaigns. The revelation of the "Access Hollywood" tapes where Trump used salacious language and bragged about attempts to seduce other women, while married himself, seemed to be the final nail in the coffin.

While these indiscretions substantially raised Trump's negatives, his opponent, due to her years in the spotlight, had a high public disapproval herself. It might have been the first national campaign where the negatives of both candidates outweighed the positives. Yet Trump also had a national message that resonated with voters, namely that he would arrest America's decline by reigning in special interests and other favored groups that had outsized influence over the national government.

In the end, those voters who had a negative opinion of both candidates supported Trump and provided him his electoral college majority.

In all cases, Carter in 1980, Bush in 1992, McCain in 2008 and Clinton in 2016 banked on winning because of perceived deep and basic flaws in their opponents. In each case, the voters overlooked the imperfections.

Note to Bill Stepien, the president's new campaign manager: The best strategy for a successful presidential campaign still involves a winning national message, and for an incumbent one that focuses on a record of accomplishment as well as advocating future specific policies that address national priorities. Relying on the opponent's flaws is risky business.

Frank Donatelli served as assistant for political affairs to President Reagan and as deputy chairman of the Republican National Committee during the 2008 presidential campaign of John McCain.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​