Handling Negative Campaign Issues

by Kenneth J. Drum

In this issue of the newsletter we cover some basics on how a candidate can handle negative campaign issues.

There are really two paths to how negative issues can arise in a campaign. One, is the candidate's own background has some negatives that need to be dealt with. Negatives in a candidate's background can take many forms such as a youthful mistake, a bankruptcy, a DUI, failed to pay taxes for three years, a troubled relationship, a campaign gaffe, etc. There are others but I think that you get the picture. For the most part, they are self-inflicted wounds but may require an explanation of them to the voters. Consultants refer to these situations as a candidate's "baggage".

With negative situations it's always better to be open about them and get them behind you ASAP. If you don't, voters may feel that you're trying to hide something. If your opponent has any sense of campaign tactics you can bet that your opponent has done some "opposition research" on you. It's far better if you take pre-emptive action rather than have your opponent expose the negatives to the voters. You want to be in a position to say that "everyone knows that--it's old news."

The second source of negative campaign issues comes from outside of your campaign. Usually directly from an opponent but, can also be from the media, supporters of your opponent, or from people who just don't like you. Internet bloggers for example.

Negative Campaigning Frequently Works

The increased usage of negative campaigning at all levels of elections these days is because it works. If it didn't, you wouldn't see it. Negative campaign charges generally take three distinctly different lines of attack. The first are attacks upon the person. They usually bear no relevance to the campaign. Things like the person is too old, too fat, has no friends, has a mean spouse, etc. These attacks are unethical and should not be used in any campaign.

The second group of negative campaign charges are attacks on a candidate's record or policies. In my opinion fair game. Some campaigns don't attack an opponent's policies or record and prefer to only offer positive solutions. They fear that voters will become "turned off" if they go negative. Election results say the opposite provided the facts can be substantiated. It's good to draw distinctions between your candidacy and your opponent's. Candidates should not rule out using these types of negative issues.

Counter-Attacking A Negative Opponent

When confronted by an opponent who "goes negative" it is a mistake not to respond to it. Some candidates feel that if you ignore the charges they will go away. They in fact will go away provided voters view the charges as ridiculous. In many cases however, voters will tend to believe something that is not responded to. That's why a response is important.

There are several ways to counter-attack a negative campaign. A few of them are:

  • Question the motivation of the other side—“They're doing this because they know they’re losing. They’re desperate.”
  • Get out in front of it and warn voters—“The other side is desperate and will be running a negative campaign in order to fool voters. Watch for it.” When they do people will know it.
  • Make lemonade out of lemons—If charged with being a RINO turn the debate into who has been a better Republican. Most of them haven’t done anything for the party. Accuse them of running the party into the ground by excluding everyone who disagrees with them.
  • Charge them with failing to communicate with voters. “My opponent has nothing to say except to lie about the facts surrounding this election. I on the other hand have made over 1,000 door to door visits with voters.” (Or some other action that demonstrates voter contact.)
  • Charge them with running a campaign of lies and distortions backed by big money from special interests. “I on the other hand raised my money from smaller contributors who do not want special favors.”
  • Try to trap an opponent making an illogical assertion. Often, negative charges are issues that are taken out of context. The use of the half-truth. If a negative charge is illogical it can be easily refuted by bringing forth evidence to support your position. Voters generally don't like a candidate who engages in false charges.

Above all, negative charges by the opponent must be responded to. It’s a mistake to think that they will disappear by doing nothing. Often the opponent will use a surrogate to make negative charges in order to appear to be above the fray. Charge the opponent with using a stooge to deliver his/her message. Do not respond directly to an opponent’s surrogate. Put the responsibility where it belongs—onyour opponent.

Use political speech not Shakespearian eloquence when responding to negative charges. In any political setting it is always best to be less detailed but to use politically charged words. Here’s what I mean.

You have a plan—your opponent has a scheme. You have a supporter—your opponent has a stooge. You have grassroots support—your opponent is a tool of special interests. You are working hard to make the right decision—your opponent is maneuvering behind the scenes trying to fool voters. You’ve agreed to the best possible solution—your opponent has sold out. etc, etc, etc.

All of this is part of an election process. The final decision on the usage and the extent of using negative issues is up to each candidate.

QUESTION: How can a candidate best respond to negative media coverage?

There is only one real way to beat negative media coverage. You have to get out in front of it. The recent troubles of Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain illustrates the point. Cain was running sort of a self-made campaign with little or no professional staff. In reality he was his own campaign manager. He probably didn't imagine that his campaign would become as quickly successful as it did. If he had put a professional campaign organization in place he would have dealt with the sexual harassment allegations differently. Or, he might have well decided not to run.

The story kept unfolding over several weeks and got worse as his story changed. A good campaign professional would have vetted the candidate at the outset of the campaign. That's one of the uses of opposition research. To research your own candidate. Cain struggled because hefailed to get out in front of the story as it broke.

In the media game, you've got to respond quickly and loudly. The laws of human behavior tell us that if a source is credible, like a media outlet, most people are going to believe the story has merit unless there is some form of denial involved by the accused. Even if the media outlet reads or prints a statement from you prepared by your campaign, most viewers and readers will gloss over that part of the story. Instead, they will see and hear your opponent making charges against you. There will be evidence supporting the position of the accuser. Finally, they will hear or read that "Mr. Johnny Jones refused to answer any of our questions." Why wouldn't the candidate or campaign manager talk to the reporter? If you didn't respond it must be true. It's common human behavior to assume that guilty people try to hide.

Let's assume you have decided to talk with the media. The story must now include a portion of its time to your defense. Readers and viewers should hear why: A) the story isn't true, B) the opponent is stretching the truth, or C) you are working to solve the problem. A projection of the image of sympathy or empathy might give you the benefit of the doubt.

If the negative attacks are coming from bloggers on a news outlet consider having a stand-by "truth squad" that monitors and respondsto the attacks. Most readers don't blog. However, blogs do form the opinions of some voters. It's always best to correct wrong information.

Another approach is to write your own opinion letter to a newspaper. The usual "letter to the editor" columns are widely read and a good way to get your message out. While newspapers have rules governing what can be printed it's still a good idea to respond to a negative news article. However, keep in mind the sage advice that you should "never fight with anyone who buys ink by the barrel."

This article was reprinted with permission of Kenneth J. Drum & Associates, 8404 Mallow Lane, Naples, FL 34113. Copyright 2014. Kenneth J. Drum & Associates. All Rights Reserved. For more information about the author go to: http://kendrum.com/

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