Almost All Campaigning is Negative, But Some Is More Objectionable Than Others – the Republican 2012 Presidential Campaign

–Richard E. Vatz

The perennial Hydra issue of negative campaigning and negative ads has reared several of its heads recently, as Gov. Mitt Romney has begun to attack Sen. Rick Santorum.

This writer has written extensively on such campaigning (e.g. USA Today Magazine, September, 2008; see also a shorter version). One of the points I have argued consistently is that negative campaigning is unavoidable, particularly by lesser known candidates running against incumbents, because all such candidates need to say that “I shall be a better office-holder than my opponent, and here’s why.”

In this blog I just want to focus primarily on one two-pronged question: what is negative campaigning in the 2012 presidential Republican primary, and why does it matter.

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For many of the campaign ads there is no dispute. No one disagrees, for example, that pro-Romney super PAC ads that, as The New York Times states, “connect Mr. Gingrich to Nancy Pelosi and China’s one-child policy,” are negative. (In fact Gingrich threatens to sue the creators of such ads.)

Similarly, no one disputes that the Newt Gingrich ads which disparage Gov. Romney through videos of his own statements (including taking some of his quotes out of context) are “negative ads.”

Also indisputable is the fact that, as Tribune Newspapers describes it, Romney has begun negatively attacking Santorum’s defending earmarks and not being a “deficit hawk.”

In reporting these ads, Tribune Newspapers also states that “While Romney was running a starkly negative campaign, Santorum and his supporters were running positive ads arguing that he is the only proven conservative in the race.”

Whoa – these are “positive” ads? One ad says that Gov. Romney is flinging mud because “Romney’s trying to hide from his big government Romneycare.”

If Santorum says that he is the only proven conservative Republican running, that is inarguably negative. It says that Romney is inauthentic – that’s positive?

People have problems articulating why they do not approve of certain campaigning, but the claim that one is “against negative campaigning” or that ads contrasting candidates worthiness is somehow “positive” is simply misleading and false.

It is quite legitimate to impose what a colleague and I have termed the “FIT” test:” evaluating if campaign ads are false, irrelevant (not irreverent) and/or tasteless.

Anything less specific is meaningless and does not discriminate fairly among campaign ads, particularly in the Republican presidential race of 2012.

— Professor Vatz teaches political rhetoric at Towson University and is author of the recently released The Only Authentic Book of Persuasion (Kendall Hunt, 2012)

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