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Coming out on top against a negative campaign.


If Trump’s 2016 election made one thing clear, it's that negative campaigns work. Calls to lock up "crooked Hillary" carried him all the way to the White House. Hillary even ended being criticised for not responding in kind.

However, despite the pervasive and persuasive nature of negative campaigns, it is possible to come out on top, without necessarily going negative yourself.


An American study published in INFORMS journal showed that, if a candidate engages in negative campaigning it does have a positive effect on voter turnout and their vote share, especially in a two-party system.

Thus, candidates who initially have fewer resources or less public exposure particularly benefit from running a negative campaign.

If you can demonstrate the genuine failings or weaknesses of an opponent, you can use their larger and more established profile to gain attention.

This might be through demonstrating an opponent's inconsistent voting record, or harmful policy implementations.


It isn't just mudslinging though:there are a number of important rules to running a successful negative campaign.

The most crucial of which is ensuring you have some genuine negative content on your opponent.

You must avoid personal slander, keep your message simple, and stick to it.


It's important that your message is direct, clear and credible.

People will only believe a negative campaign if the source is one with credibility, otherwise it may simply get dismissed.

Mainstream media outlets are more likely to give you longer coverage and exposure too - covering conflict is a hallmark of journalism and is guaranteed to attract viewers.

A negative campaign also defines your opponent far more than it does you, allowing you room to create a favourable comparison between yourself and your opponent, without doing so explicitly.

Additionally, negative campaign is an effective long term investment, as it could remain [present?] over multiple elections. Studies show people recall negative messaging more than positive.


However, a mismanaged negative campaign can lead to disaster.

Zac Goldsmith's campaign against Sadiq Khan in the 2016 London mayoral elections is a potent reminder of this.

Goldsmith's campaign tried playing on racial divisions. It targeted voters with Sikh/Tamil/Hindu names, sending them direct mails implying Sadiq's religion could be a security threat to them.

The campaign breached the sphere of appropriate critique and attempted to link Khan to Islamic State - unjustified and thus unpalatable to the public.

But Khan successfully avoided a slanging match by simply calling out the tactic and misinformation instead.

Letting the mainstream media run the criticism for him too, he used their sphere of influence to highlight the subtle racism used, and query the crude nature of Goldsmith’s character.

Thus, Khan successfully overcame a negative campaign by turning his opponents' narrative into a liability.


So, what actions should you take to come out more like Khan, and less like Hillary, when faced with a negative campaign?

First, it's important to decide whether the campaign is worth responding to.

If the campaign fails to clearly deliver its message, or is receiving minimal coverage, then it's best not to bring attention to it.

If the campaign is receiving significant attention, then analyse the claims for any lies. If your opponent is lying, publicly address this.

Then use their lie as a springboard to undermine other claims they make.

If the campaign is still hurting you because of its credibility or mainstream media attention, then you have no option but to respond in kind.

Target a negative campaign at your opponent on another issue, this will hopefully deflect attention away from yourself and onto them instead.


Suffering from an attack ad currently or sensing one coming?

To run a successful political campaign, numerous variants must be well-planned and precisely executed, with the unknown always prepared for.

Our experience on local, regional and national campaigns best places us to offer that crucial co-ordination, forward planning and digital insight.

We are Civitas are on hand to craft campaign strategy and keep you on the road to victory. Get in touch here.


Thanks for reading!



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