Positive Works

November 25, 2011

After the 2004 federal election, where I was the pollster for Jack Layton and the NDP, a prominent media pundit pronounced: “Negative works!”   This is a phrase that I’ve heard countless times in the political business.  The problem is, it’s not a complete thought.  Does it mean negative campaigning works…

… all the time?

…no matter how you use it?

… no matter what else is going on in the campaign?

The answer to each of the above questions is, of course, no. But those who say “Negative works” are implying that it’s always an easy recipe for success. If you need votes, go negative and the votes will magically flow to you.  The truth is, it doesn’t usually work that way.

When I say “Negative,” I’m not talking about statements or ads that say “our opponent has this position and I don’t agree with it,” or that highlight contrasting positions between contenders, which is a necessary part of almost every campaign. I’m referring to harsh attacks, mostly through advertising, which are usually character based and often pound on seemingly minor “wedge issues.”

It was funny to see “negative works” used to explain the 2004 federal campaign. The Liberals and Conservatives both used a substantial amount of negative advertising, and the NDP did some too, and all the parties were disappointed with the outcome. The Conservatives were hoping to win and didn’t, the Liberals wanted a majority and didn’t get it, and the NDP finished less well than expected. So who, then, did going negative work for?

In the recent Vancouver election, Vision Vancouver and Gregor Robertson (with whom I was working) ran a positive campaign focused on Vision’s track record, programs, and building awareness of our candidates.  The other guys (the NPA), ran a nasty, mudslinging, personally-focused negative campaign – complete with unsigned letters, name calling, attack ads and chicken suits. It was done so poorly and ineffectively that to call it a negative US style campaign, as some did, is almost an insult to negative US style campaigns. It was more of a brain dump of negativity and hostility. They hated the Mayor and it showed. That’s an emotion, not a campaign tactic.

The result: Vision won 18 of the 18 positions we contested, beating the party that has largely governed Vancouver since the 1930’s including controlling city council from the mid 1980’s to 2002. But…“Negative Works!”

….unless, I suppose, it’s done by an angry person in a chicken suit.

The successful results from Robertson’s positive campaign are by no means an exception. Many successful Canadian and US campaigns have been positive. You can’t get more positive than Obama’s “Yes We Can.” And look at the enormous positive profile Jack Layton achieved for himself and the NDP leading up to, and during, the last federal election. Much of that was from Jack’s positive personality, campaigning and approach over the years. Dalton McGuinty became Premier of Ontario without running a single negative ad. We underestimate voters if we think they don’t want this, or won’t vote for it. Or that they won’t vote against the contrary approach. Its time campaign lore caught up with campaign reality.

Some imply negative is the magic bullet, but in my experience it seldom hits the target. Although “negative works” is almost a creed of our profession, there is often little data that proves that attack ads and other negative tactics actually move the numbers. Numbers always move.  Ads always run. You still have to prove one causes another and mostly the proof isn’t there, or points to the contrary. The truth is, like any campaign tactic, it depends on the situation.   

No doubt the Federal Conservatives hurt Michael Ignatieff’s image with their pre-election attacks against him in the last federal election, but the steady and significant Liberal decline, over four successive federal elections, suggests that something more was at work here. I could understand why the Liberals would want to claim that Ignatieff lost the election due to unfair attacks, but if I were them, I would look deeper. In Ontario, Tim Hudak used the Federal Tory attack model to attack Dalton McGuinty for months in advance of the recent Ontario election, in a barrage of nasty ads to brand him “the taxman.”  These attacks didn’t help Hudak; in fact he lost the lead he had, and his chance to become Premier, even though he was thought by many to have the chance of winning.

It is true that negative campaign tactics are often part of campaigns in the US, but not as often as people think, and not without concern about their potentially damaging counter-effect (usually carefully watched through tracking polls), and especially not without strategy. But even then, the US system and voter sensibility is different, and the sheer tonnage of advertising available to most campaigns means the campaign dynamics are different. While it’s true that some voters can be persuaded by a negative attack (and in some campaigns a negative approach is the correct one strategically), they can also be dissuaded from supporting those who made the attack. 

In our Vancouver campaign, more than a third of voters said their impression of Suzanne Anton worsened during the campaign, and when asked the reason their opinion went down, 28% said it was because of her negative campaign tactics, and 22% because Anton didn’t outline a positive program. So, being too negative and not positive enough created 50% of all worsened impressions of our opponent. That’s a lot, and that was before the final week’s over-the-top barrage of negativity. Anton’s denials that they were running a negative campaign only made it worse: she got a dishonesty tag added to the mix. Did Anton’s negative campaign cost her and her candidates votes? Without a doubt.

While it is true that Anton finished with a somewhat higher percentage of vote than some of the early public polls showed, this was inevitable given her low recognition and starting point to begin with, and the higher turnout propensity amongst the demographics where she had her highest support. But there is little evidence that her negative campaign caused that change or that it helped her more than it hurt her.

On the other hand, Robertson had a positive campaign focus with a commitment to end homelessness, to address the crisis in housing affordability, and to raise the environmental bar on how we live in our city. And doing this while running the city well and in a fiscally responsible way was the balance most people were looking for – doing the best for residents and being, whenever we can, an example to the world. This positive picture inspired many voters to ignore the onslaught of attacks and vote for Robertson and Vision.

The truth is: Positive works…

…when it’s done right, when it’s appropriate, most of the time.

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7 Comments Leave a Comment

  • 1. Monte Paulsen  |  November 25, 2011 at 10:03 am

    During the course of almost 20 years covering campaigns, I can’t recall a campaign that acknowledged it was a negative campaign. “Positive” is spin point #1. Always.

    And then, about halfway through, the vast majority go negative.

    Some knew from the start they were going to go on the attack. They figured they had a larger loyal base than their opponents, and they were using negativity as a tactic to sour the other side’s less-loyal base. As Bob notes, carefully crafted negative messaging — in concert with precise polling — “works” in that it can keep groups of voters away from the polls.

    Other campaigns went negative halfway through. This, in my observation, is among the most common “amateur mistakes.” The candidate(s) sees her/his polling slide, loses confidence in her/his message and/or base, and goes negative. There is always some young firebrand in the room urging the campaign to go negative. And the amateur candidate too often turns to that guy in a moment of desperation. (Even though the same candidate, in calm forethought, knew better than to listen to that guy just six months earlier.)

    A final group goes negative right at the end. Sometimes this is in reaction to negativity from the other side. Candidates have surprisingly thin skins, and sometimes begin to imagine that they must respond to negative attacks on their character, their family, etc. And in most cases, the candidate fins her or himself surrounded by a team that agrees; this is because the loyalists who staff a campaign tend to have even thinner skin than the candidate. (Thinnest of all: journalists. But I digress.) In these cases, the candidates were essentially goaded into going negative by the opposition. I’ve always regarded this as even more foolish than listening to the angry guy in the mailroom.

    And so, speaking as a recovering journalist who was not involved in or writing about either campaign, what impressed me about Vision’s positive campaign is that is stayed (mostly) positive all the way to the end. (The early “flip-flop” hits were negative, as were some of the “trust us or else” bits in the final week.) Bluntly: It looked from the outside as though Vision drew up a plan, and largely stuck to that plan. In my experience, such a steady hand is rare in modern politics. And my hunch is it was this stay-the-course management, as much as anything else, that enabled Vision to plod out a ground victory, one set of door marks at a time.

    Or? 😉

  • 2. Ellen S. Jaffe  |  November 25, 2011 at 5:47 pm

    t appreciate this thoughtful, well-written look at how “Positive works.” I was in Ontario during the recent provincial election, and I think Tim Hudak’s negative ads (especially the “Taxman”) did turn voters’ opinions away fromTim Hudak with their repetitious negativity — voters heard mainly this, not positive messages about his programs; Dalton McGuinty and Andrea Horvath both did well with more positive and creative approaches, not only on the content of their campaign messages, but also in the way they talked to citizens/voters..

    Ellen S. Jaffe

  • 3. Bob Penner  |  November 26, 2011 at 6:51 am

    Its true the most common line when running a negative campaign is to deny it. I don’t think that works, usually. There is blurry distinction however between crticizing an opponent and running a negative campaign, but you are out there pounding on them, and then say you aren’t, you lose credibility.

    The most common of your scenarios I’ve seen is the go negative late when your losing. And its not usually just one young firebrand, often how bunch of people will panic, and say we have to go negative. Thing is I’ve never seen that work, on the attacking side, on the receiving side, or as an observer. Its just a myth that it does, but a myth widely believed. Look the federal Liberal onslaught in the last week of 2011 campaign. Didn’t stem that tide, or recall the ferries and other final week attacks on COPE in the 2002 Vancouver. Never works, usually hurts, but that won’t stop it from happening.

  • 4. Bob Penner  |  November 26, 2011 at 6:52 am

    Its true the most common line when running a negative campaign is to deny it. I don’t think that works, usually. There is blurry distinction however between crticizing an opponent and running a negative campaign, but you are out there pounding on them, and then say you aren’t, you lose credibility.

    The most common of your scenarios I’ve seen is the go negative late when your losing. And its not usually just one young firebrand, often how bunch of people will panic, and say we have to go negative. Thing is I’ve never seen that work, on the attacking side, on the receiving side, or as an observer. Its just a myth that it does, but a myth widely believed. Look the federal Liberal onslaught in the last week of 2011 campaign. Didn’t stem that tide, or recall the ferries and other final week attacks on COPE in the 2002 Vancouver. Never works, usually hurts, but that won’t stop it from happening

  • 5. xeron  |  November 25, 2011 at 11:46 am

    A negative campaign is only necessary when the party has nothing to offer. But its good to know what’s at stake and why NOT to vote for a party or candidate. Obviously, if the negative message is over the top, then there will be blow back. The neo-con message to be wary of Ignatieff because he worked over-seas and was not, therefore, a “real” Canadian, I think, backfired with many recent immigrants because of the message’s inherent racism. It might have worked for the neo-cons as it played to nativist fears and fears about “elites”. But since the neo-cons had already sown up the nativist vote, it was over-kill. The neo-cons had little to fear, however, since the corporate media were backing the Calgary boy from TO for his tax cuts to corporations and that carried the day for the relatively few Canadians who bothered to vote. That’s my take… Negative campaigns are risky but can be somewhat useful if targeted properly.

  • 6. Wayne Smith  |  December 19, 2011 at 3:06 pm

    While you are to be congratulated on having all 18 of your candidates get elected, and I have no doubt they are all excellent candidates, it is still not a good outcome for democracy, or for the people of Vancouver. Did your candidates receive 100% of the votes?

    This kind of one-party sweep is typical in a Block Voting system. The disadvantages will become more obvious in a future election when all of your candidates lose.

    Vancouver, and all Canadian municipalities, need a proportional voting system like the Single Transferable Vote, so that everyone can be represented by people they actually voted for.

  • 7. Dix’s Big Gamble: N&hellip  |  February 14, 2013 at 2:10 pm

    […] Bob Penner argues that “positive works.” In a blog post, Penner points to the 2011 Vancouver civic […]

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