It’s still a few months away, but soon your mailboxes, radios and televisions will be over-saturated with political messages.
Some will be positive, sugary-sweet stories of a candidate’s good deeds and amazing accomplishments. If done well, these messages will make you wonder how you ever got along without that particular politician in office. They will also try to hit your hot-button issues – growth, crime, education – and point to the candidate’s sterling record on these topics
There’s another type of message you will receive, however. It’s the kind that has given politics a bad name: the extremely nasty attack, accusing a candidate of everything from bad votes to accepting money from special interests – and worse. At best, these images will repulse you and make you wonder how anyone could do the things mentioned. Even if you support the candidate being attacked, you can’t help but wonder whether even some of what is being said is the truth.
Casual observers often wonder why all these messages are necessary. Why can’t a candidate just win by stating his or her own positive qualities? Is it really necessary to destroy an opponent’s reputation in order to win an election?
Unfortunately, the answer is often yes, although the reasons may surprise you.
It has nothing to do with wanting to be nasty, or even having a strong competitive spirit. While the candidates putting out this negative advertising want to win, they aren’t bad people. They don’t beat their wives or their pets and eat raw meat for breakfast. The reason they do these ads has everything to do with the nature of our electorate and the times in which we live.
As recent elections have shown, people just don’t vote anymore. The figures are astounding for a country that prides itself on being the oldest and greatest democracy in the world. Voter turnouts in general statewide elections often dip below 50 percent, and municipal elections average an abysmal 20 percent or lower. Those figures appear even more astounding when you consider those are percentages of registered voters, who represent far less than 50 percent of our population.
So – do you think any of these voters, who’ve already shown a great amount of apathy, are going to come out just because one candidate is a really fine human being? Or are they going to come out because the opponent is an un-American antichrist who must be stopped at all costs?
The rule is that if people are content, they don’t worry about voting. Perhaps it’s their way of saying, “I want everything to stay just the way it is.” However, if it can be proven to them that they really aren’t happy, they might just jump up off the couch and head to the voting booth. Hence, the need for negative, or “issue-driven” campaigns.
If a campaign gets really nasty, however, you can bet that the candidate doing the mud-slinging doesn’t want anyone to vote – except his or her closest supporters. They know they will lose votes by being negative, but they are banking that the disgusting messages will keep enough of their opponent’s voters home to ensure victory.
Often when you look at the voter turnout in districts where especially negative campaigns are waged, some of the people who go to the polls refuse to vote in that particular race. They leave it blank on their ballot, probably as a way of telling the candidates they disapprove of their tactics. But if that person normally would have supported the incumbent, then that non-vote is as good as a vote for the opponent.
So when you get turned off by all those horrible mail pieces and television ads and decide not to vote, remember: you may be doing exactly what the producer of those negative messages wants you to do.