Inside the Capitol

Thursday, July 29, 2004

The Positives of Negative Campaigning

SANTA FE – Negative campaigning has its positive aspects. That was the message of an old column I recently came across.
Ten years ago, I quoted the thoughts of Bob Trapp, editor and publisher of Espanola’s Rio Grand Sun, contending that positive campaigning doesn’t tell voters much of anything. And that’s why negative campaigning is valuable.
We all know every candidate is for more jobs, government efficiency and spending cuts. And they’re all against crime, taxes and waste, says Trapp. Every candidate hands out campaign cards with lists of civic organization memberships and business and government experience.
So how does one distinguish between two candidates who tell us they’re honest, experienced and committed to serving us? Trapp says that’s where negative campaigning comes in.
We don’t care if a candidate is a Kiwanian, he says. But we need to know if he was ever kicked out of Kiwanis for embezzling the club dues. That’s the kind of information that helps us decide which way to vote. Here’s some more from Trapp.
Everyone is opposed to crime in the street, but have any of these people wanting us to elect them ever served time for committing a crime in the street?
All candidates will tell us they’re going to take good care of our money but if one took out bankruptcy three times in the last 10 years, should we really trust that candidate with our money?
Negative campaigning lets us know just what kind of folks are trying to represent us. When one candidate delivers a low body blow to an opponent, we can judge by the way the recipient responds just what sort of a candidate he is. Can he take a punch and come back swinging? Can he throw some low body blows of his own? Or does he cry foul and go home to mother?
Trapp figures negative campaigning gets voters’ attention. It gets them to the polls. It makes candidates answer honestly. It makes candidates expose themselves and helps us identify their character.
Candidates should be challenged forcefully and be made to answer honestly, says Trapp, who suggests that candidates, themselves, don’t much care for negative campaigning because voters might learn things about them they would prefer to remain in the closet.
Too often, says Trapp, we find out the horrible truth about candidates after they are elected. But negative campaigning can bring out that information, and whether it is true or false, before we sent them to Santa Fe or Washington.
If a political candidate can’t survive some good old-fashioned mudslinging and tough talk, he or she shouldn’t be in politics, says Trapp. Politics is a tough business and there aren’t any written rules about how to play the game.
So, Trapp says, take off the gloves, roll up your sleeves and let’s have a real campaign this year. Let’s get muddy.
Trapp’s view is not held by the general public – or by many others in the media. It grates on our sensibilities. Theresa Kerry even says, “It’s un-American. And if you don’t believe it, you can …”
Negative campaigning probably heightens public opinion that all politicians are bums, therefore, it is honorable to ignore politics and elections. It has been blamed for decreasing voter turnout.
But negative campaigning is with us to stay. We say we don’t like it, but every campaign consultant in the nation says it works. Maybe it’s because it is painful to hear the truth, but it’s something we really want to know.
One aspect of negative campaigning was revealed in the recent Santa Fe County Democrat primary election when candidates at a forum were asked if any of them had ever been charged with drunken driving. All said no. Then it was discovered that one of the candidates had been convicted of DWI. At the next forum, the candidates were given the opportunity to answer the question again and two more of them ‘fessed up.


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