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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