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The most recent US presidential race between Trump and
Clinton provided an interesting insight into the way that presidential
campaigns have been run for the past three or four decades. Millions are spent
every four years to help presidential candidates win elections – both by their
own campaigns, by their parties, and by outsider groups, and 2016 was no
exception. The Clinton campaign alone ran more than 400,000 ads amounting to
$258 million (Fowler, Ridout and Franz, 2016, p.451). It is the tone of the
Clinton and Trump campaigns, as well as of those before them, which will be explored
in this essay. 2016 was a year that arguably subscribed to the trend towards an
overtly negative campaign tone that has arisen from the 1980s onwards. To
understand how and why negative campaigning has become a repeated tool to help
presidential candidates, it is important first to address what it consists of.
Vaccari and Morini (2014, p.21) identify it as ‘any campaign communication that
highlights negative aspects of an opponent or of a policy’ instead of the
candidate’s ‘own positive attributes or preferred policies.’ Similarly, Mayer
(1996, p.441) explains that it ‘focuses on the weaknesses and faults of the
opposition: the mistakes they have made, the flaws in their character or
performance, the bad policies they would pursue.’ Both definitions show the
foundation of negative campaigning as a focus on attacks towards the rival
candidate. It is undeniable that this form of campaigning has been trending for
several decades, and it is the evidence for this trend that this essay will
seek to outline.

 

Beginning with a short exploration of campaign
finance reforms and Supreme Court decisions in the 1970s and 80s that
ultimately triggered the rise in negative campaigning, the resulting increase
in certain outsider groups – such as political action committees (PACS) and 527
groups – and their involvement in this style of electioneering will then be
explored. The way that the media since the 1980s has consequently been able to
capitalise off of the negative campaigning that these groups adopt, and thus
further spread the technique, will be addressed, to lead on to an exploration of
how this has helped to shift the focus of campaigns to the leader’s
personality, rather than their policies, in order to personally attack
candidates. The essay will conclude with the argument that the 2016 Trump-Clinton
presidential campaign is simply the latest in a long line of negative campaigns
that have been occurring since the 1980s.

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The attempts at campaign reform from the
1970s onwards have undoubtedly affected the way in which campaigns are run, triggering
the trend in negative campaigning. Luntz (1988, p.6) points to the Federal
Election Campaign Act of 1971, the 1974 Campaign Law, and amendments made in
later years, as the beginning of a transformation in electoral campaigning in
the United States. These reforms attempted to regulate the structure of
campaigning by placing limits on and demanding full disclosure of certain
contributions, by legalizing ‘the formation of political organisations
representing organised labour and large corporations’ and by founding the
Federal Election Commission, among other things (Luntz, 1988, p.6). However,
despite the reforms to regulate electioneering, ultimately gaps in the
legislation were found that led to the shift towards negative campaigning. Mark
(2009, p.152) importantly highlights the rise in ‘fat-cat donations’ that were
transferred from ‘national party organisations…to private groups that aimed not
just to support their favoured candidate but to tear down the opposition,’ as
only one example of the ways in which these reforms led to the rise in overtly
adversarial campaigning. In many ways, whilst certain campaign approaches were
regulated and limited, it allowed the space for other, less regulated and less
limited, approaches to take place of the old ones. Furthermore, under the
banner of the imperative Supreme Court ‘Buckley v Valeo’ ruling of 1976 that
considered these reforms in great detail, the decision was made that candidates
would actually be allowed to spend unlimited amounts of money on their own
campaigns and also allowed limitless campaign spending, thereby overturning and
loosening key aspects of the reforms (Lunts, 1988, p.9). This transformative
period arguably became the catalyst for the shift towards negative campaigning.

 

One effect of these reforms, along with
subsequent Supreme Court decisions regarding them, was the creation of new and
influential outsider groups who are logistically separate from presidential
candidates and thus free to deploy negative campaign methods with limited
repercussions for the candidates they support. The earliest of these outsider
groups to flourish were Political Action Committees (PACs), however with
Supreme Court rulings such as ‘Citizens United v Federal Election Commission’
in 2010, Super PACs and 527 groups have similarly come into the foreground,
adding to the growth in outsider group spending surrounding campaigns and, as a
by-product, contributing to a growth in spending towards negative campaign
methods (Fowler, Ridout and Franz, 2016, p.460). Whilst Ansolabehere and
Iyengar (1995) argue that outsider groups actually contribute more positive
messages than negative, it is undeniable that super PACs and 527 groups have
the freedom and funding to launch extensive attacks against the candidates that
they do not support, and the evidence of this lies in just how many attacks they
pursue throughout each election. As early as 1988, the National Security PAC
generated one of the most notorious attack ads in presidential history – the
Willie Horton ad – something even Ansolabehere and Iyengar (1995, p.129)
acknowledge, and this was far from a one-off occurrence. In 2004, the Swift
Boat Veterans for Truth 527 group attacked presidential candidate Kerry by
questioning his military record extensively over several months through the use
of attack ads (Vaccari and Morini, 2014). The Trump-Clinton election furthered
this trend; Priorities USA Action, a pro-Clinton Super PAC, aired 50,000 spot
ads attacking Trump, and the pro-Trump NRA Institute for Legislative action ran
10,000 ads attacking Clinton (Fowler, Ridout and Franz, 2016, p.452). This
shows the persistent and unwavering use of negative campaigning by the very
outsider groups that have been legitimised by the electoral reforms. Even if
Ansolebehere and Iyengar’s (1995) argument that outsider groups prefer positive
messages is true, this does not hide the fact that those messages are not the
ones that are the most amplified or pervasive – it is the negative ones which
achieve more traction (Ridout and Smith, 2008;
Stevens, 2012), and thus show the prevailing effect of outsider groups on
negative campaigning. This type of electioneering is trending and outsider
groups have become one of the most important vessels for it in the wake of the
campaign reforms of the 1970s and 80s.

 

Following from these groups and their
advertisements is the influence of the media in furthering negative
campaigning. The media has had an important role in the growth of negative campaigning
in two ways; the growth of the mass media has given outsider groups and
presidential campaigns a channel through which to spread negative campaign messages,
and the media has also encouraged the use of negative campaigning through the
practice of ad amplification (Ridout and Smith, 2008). The growth of broadcasting
and the internet has undoubtedly had an effect on negative campaigning – it has
been made infinitely easier to access the masses, thus meaning it has been made
easier to access those who have the potential for voting for the other
candidate (Ansolabehere and Iyengar, 1995, p.101). What this means is that new
techniques have had to be adopted to deter those who favour the opponent
because that audience has become more widely accessible through the mass media.
Indeed, the growth of the mass media has enabled outsider groups to spread
negative messages with less repercussions as tools such as the internet can be
used for defamations without linking the messages directly with one candidate
or another (Vaccari and Morini, 2014). For example, the infamous smear about
Obama being a Muslim created over 600 videos on Youtube with an unprecedented
amount of views (Vaccari and Morini, 2014, p.33). Furthermore, the mass media
and the internet have also allowed negative campaigning to take on a world of
its own, making ‘slanders…harder to control,’ (Vaccari and Morini, 2014) and
allowing 24/7 communication between voters, meaning that once a story is
publicised it becomes the gossip of the nation almost overnight, in a way that
was inconceivable before these technological developments. In addition to this,
the growth of the mass media has not only had the indirect effect of making negative
campaigning easier since the latter half of the 20th century, but it
has also in some ways directly encouraged it. Arguably, the media’s reaction to
negative campaigning – offering more attention and coverage of controversial
stories over positive ones (Ridout and Smith, 2008) – has shown campaigners and
outsider groups that if they want the help of the free media to get their messages
across, the most effective method is to run negative campaigns. The effect of
ad amplification as a result of technological developments (Ridout and Smith,
2008) is, therefore, an important factor in driving the negative campaign trend
because it has shown an easy way to make the most of the free media; a vital
and cheap tool to harness in the process of accessing the mass electorate. The
media, therefore, has largely encouraged the use of negative campaigning since
the 1980s, pushing the trend even further.

 

The trend since the 1980s that has placed
candidates’ personalities over their policies (Luntz, 1988), has also furthered
negative campaigning with the help of the mass media and outsider groups.
Arguably, the American electoral system itself encourages a focus on the leader
over their policies due to the ‘majority electoral system and institutionalized
primary elections,’ (Vaccari and Morini, 2014), and the evidence of this having
been exacerbated since the reform laws and the growth in outsider groups and
the mass media is abundant, none more so than in the 2016 presidential election.
As much as 90% of Clinton’s attacks against Trump attacked his personality and
ability to run the country over his policy promises – three times as many ads as
she used to promote herself (Fowler, Ridout and Franz, 2016, p.459). The 2008
election showed the focus on personal attacks clearly also, where an anonymous
lie was spread about Obama’s religion which caused much controversy and uproar
(Vaccari and Morini, 2014). Mark (2009) argues that the tone of the 2008
campaigns were relatively restrained, however understanding that this smear was
personal, targeted, and aimed at exploiting the racial and religious tensions in
the country, shows that the . Ads in support of McCain even went so far as to
state Obama was affiliated with ‘terrorists’ such as Ayers (Mark, 2009, p.257).
Campaigns have begun to focus on instilling doubt about opponents’ personal
characteristics, even if these are not directly tied to their ability to
enforce effective or positive policies, and arguably this negative trend has
emerged from the growth of candidate centred campaigning that has been amplified
since the changes in the media and politics in the last part of the 20th
century.

 

The combination of campaign reforms,
outsider groups, the growth in the mass media and personality centred politics
has undeniably shifted the style of campaigning to a more negative tone. These
factors have fed into each other to create the perfect environment for attack
ads and adversarial campaigns, and presidential candidates and their supporters
have been able to harness this atmosphere in an attempt to dissuade voters from
supporting their opponents. This is not to say that positive or restrained
campaigns have not been attempted, however the overall tone of campaigns from
the 1980s through to the 2016 Trump-Clinton presidential election has
undeniably been negative. 

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