Leave Feedback

Negative campaigning an age-old tradition

Tom Jackson • Nov 5, 2012 at 8:32 AM

But fret not: Negative messages have long been a feature in American politics, said Joel Lieske, a professor of political science at Cleveland State University.  

Lieske pointed to the legendarily dirty 1884 presidential election, when Republicans dug up allegations that the Democratic candidate, Grover Cleveland, had fathered an illegitimate child and chanted, “Ma, ma, where’s my pa?”

Democrats, however, pointed to allegations that Republican James G. Blaine corruptly influenced legislation to help railroad companies. An incriminating letter surfaced in which Blaine wrote, “Burn this letter.”

Democrats chanted, “Blaine, Blaine, James G. Blaine, the continental liar from the state of Maine, ‘Burn this letter!”

The election may have turned on a negative phrase that backfired.

During a campaign rally, a Blaine supporter described Democrats as the party of “Rum, Romanism and Rebellion.”

Irish voters in swing states found the insult particularly galling and rallied around Cleveland.

Lieske said political scientists who study advertising have found negative ads work, but they don’t win elections by themselves. A candidate must also offer a positive message and provide hope.

For more on this story, and on how negative campaigning has affected local elections, pick up a copy of Monday's Register.

Recommended for You