The Edge: Competitive Edge Blog

Going Negative

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Senator Bernie Sanders has spent a lot of time talking about his positions on the topics of the day, and why he should be president of the United States. But until very recently, he hasn’t spent any time showing Democrat voters why Hillary Clinton should not be president. This is what could cost him the nomination, if he has any chance in the first place.

Voters need to hear why your opponent is sharply different than you. There needs to be separation there – a real difference — otherwise, why bother to vote? Without a clear contrast, you won’t win.

The easiest way to do this is by “going negative.” Sure, we hear it all the time: voters don’t like negative political ads. They don’t. Yet campaigns in every election cycle are won by candidates who highlight their opponent’s foibles and lost by candidates who can’t figure out a good way to do that.

How a voter feels about the process of campaigning is not the issue. The issue is winning. Going negative doesn’t have to be a Trumpian-style attack. In fact, in my opinion, it shouldn’t be (and the proof of that will come when voters start complaining of Trump fatigue). But it’s vital that candidates give voters a good reason NOT to vote for the other guy or gal. Winning campaigns figure out how to do that deftly.

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Someone on the Sanders campaign must have been making the case for this, because Sanders gave a speech in Vermont early in January hitting Hillary Clinton for taking speaking fees from the financial industry and, in his view, not going far enough in her plan to regulate Wall Street. His criticism of former Secretary Clinton was some of his strongest in the campaign. So nine months into his campaign Bernie finally had a negative word for Hillary. It could be too little too late, but we’ll find out in a few weeks.

No matter the year, negative campaigns are part of America’s DNA. During the 1828 presidential race between Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams, Jackson was accused of cock-fighting and cannibalism. Mrs. Jackson was called a prostitute and Adams claimed she’d never gotten divorced from her first husband (her “pimp”) before marrying Jackson.

Jackson’s supporters retaliated by spreading a rumor Adams acted as a pimp for the Russian czar when he served as the American ambassador to Russia, setting him up with an American girl to “entertain” him. Jacksonians said this explained his great success as a diplomat. Adams was also attacked for putting a billiard table in the White House and charging the government for it. It was true that Adams played billiards in the White House, but he paid for the table himself.

It makes Donald Trump’s comments seem tame, doesn’t it? By the way, the attacks on Jackson didn’t work. He won his second term in office. But his wife Rachel suffered a heart attack and died before the inauguration, and President Jackson blamed her death on the stress of the campaign.

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