Negative Campaigning Clarified: The “FIT” Test

Commentary: The Baltmore Examiner July 14, 2008


Every political campaign sports complaints across a wide spectrum of observers that “negative campaigning” is destroying the political system. That argument overlooks the point that the two main arguments for one’s candidacy are that “I am a good candidate,” and “my opponent is not so good.” The latter point requires some type of negative campaigning by any definition.

What people correctly object to is not negative campaigning per se, but campaigning that is inappropriately negative. It is perfectly legitimate to criticize one’s opponent’s political decision-making, priorities and history.

Trending: What Is a Hero?

There does not, however, appear to be any working definition of what is inappropriate.

Herewith please find working criteria — the “FIT” Test — by which reasonable people can ascertain whether campaign attacks are acceptably negative or unacceptably negative.
Unacceptable negative attacks fall into the categories of those which are 1. false; 2. irrelevant; or 3. tasteless. Hence, the “FIT” Test.

Applying these criteria to the campaigns in the first six months of this year, we can see negative attacks on Barack Obama, John McCain and Hillary Clinton that are acceptable and those that are unacceptable by these measures.

For example, acceptable negative attacks on those candidates included the following: Obama’s statement that citizens’ emphases on guns and religion are a result of economic bitterness, and his long toleration of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright; McCain’s age and his changing his position on offshore drilling; and Clinton’s changing her opinion on a troop withdrawal from Iraq timetable and her false statement that she was “under fire” in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1996.

Unacceptable negative attacks include the citing of Michelle Obama’s alleged repeated iteration of “Whitey” in church (false), McCain’s divorcing of his first wife (irrelevant) and sexist attacks on Hillary Clinton, such as Mike Barnicle’s now famous claim that “Mrs. Clinton was looking like everyone’s first wife standing outside a probate court” (tasteless).

This outline does not vitiate the reality that false, irrelevant and tasteless campaigning can be effective.

Still, such categories may help voters understand that it is not negative campaigning as such that they should oppose, but untrue, immaterial and/or vulgar campaign rhetoric that is not FIT for electing the better candidate.

Richard E. Vatz is a professor of political rhetoric at Towson University.

Richard E. Vatz, Ph.D.Towson Distinguished ProfessorProfessor,
MCOM/COMM; University Senate; Towson University
Associate Psychology Editor, USA Today Magazine

Send this to a friend