7 Rules for Going Negative on Political Campaigns

Most voters will tell you they’re turned off by negative campaigning literature.

They’re probably telling the truth, but at the same time negative campaigning is influencing their vote.

How can this be?  How can voters who adamantly hate negative campaigning, have their voting behavior swayed when a candidate is attacked?

Why Voters Respond to Negative Campaigning

In 2012, Ruthan Lariscy explained this contraction in a Special Report for CNN:

So if we don’t like negative ads and even perhaps suspect they contribute to political malaise, why are they increasingly dominating candidates’ strategies?

The answer is simple: They work. And they work very well…

Our brains process information both consciously and non-consciously. When we pay attention to a message we are engaged in active message processing. When we are distracted or not paying attention we may nonetheless passively receive information. There is some evidence that negative messages may be more likely than positive ones to passively register. They “stick” for several reasons.

First, one of the most important contributors to their success may be the negativity bias. Negative information is more memorable than positive — just think how clearly you remember an insult.

Second, negative ads are more complex than positive ones. A positive message that talks about the sponsoring candidate’s voting record, for example, is simple and straightforward. Every negative ad has at least an implied comparison….This complexity can cause us to process the information more slowly and with somewhat more attentiveness.


With that out of the way you’re probably wondering if I’m saying that you have to go negative, attack your opponents, and sling as much mud possible in your campaign?

Absolutely not!

Many candidates for elected office will never need to “go negative” during their campaigns.

However there are times, places, and reasons when a candidate should attack an opponent, just as there are times, places, and reasons to stay completely positive and refrain from the negative.

A winning candidate knows when and where to do each, and if you keep reading you’ll know them too.

The Rules for Negative Campaigning

There’s a good chance you might not want to read any further.  You don’t consider yourself the kind of person who does not “go negative” or you don’t like the idea of attacking to win your election.

We all have varying definitions of what “going negative” means.  As a candidate your definition shouldn’t be about throwing mud or going on the war path.

What you’re doing when you point out your opponent’s negatives is helping the voters make a well informed decision on Election Day.

Once upon a time you might’ve been able to rely on your local newspaper to do that for you.  Those days are over and candidates are on their own now.

If you want the voters to know your opponent whose running as a successful business owner declared bankruptcy twice before, it’s up to you to tell them.

If your opponent is running for re-election and skipped a fourth of the city council meetings in her term that’s now ending, you’re the one who needs to get the word out.

As you can see, it’s not so much about going negative as it is letting the voters know the whole story so they can make the best decision for the community when they cast their ballots.

If that doesn’t convince you that you may need to go negative in your campaign, that’s fine.  I would never demand any candidate do anything they don’t feel comfortable doing in a campaign.

But make no mistake:  not everyone in your race feels the same way about it.  If they have to, your opponents will likely attack you and if you don’t respond in kind, you might not have the happiest Election Night party.

1. Only Go Negative When The Race is Close, Tied, or You’re Behind

There’s absolutely no reason to go negative if you’re going to win in a landslide.

If you’ve got all the money and endorsements in the race, have been doing the work, and communicating regularly with voters on issues they care about – and your opponents are not, you’re probably going to win hands down.

Should that be the case, there’s no reason for you to attack anyone, even if your research files contain some really juicy hits on your opponents.

However, you have to know you are going to win big if you lay off the attack.

The only way to know is with a reputable tracking poll fielded at the right time that surveyed the right voters.  Without that information, you really won’t know for sure.

Now if the race is close, tied, or you’re behind, then you probably need to attack.

You need to knock down your closest challenger to prevent them from being a threat, or you need hit the front runner so that you can move into first place.

2. Always Keep Your Negatives Truthful

Some people think you can make things up about a candidate, repeat it as often as possible, and the voters will believe it.

This sometimes works, but it has a horrible downside for the candidate who does it.

If you’re caught lying or making things up, your attack could destroy your credibility and your chances of winning your election.

If you have to make something up about your opponents, you should not be going negative!

When you attack, the information you’re attacking on must be truthful.  You need to be able to cite the vote your opponent made, the statement they said, or position they once had but now changed during the campaign.

You are entitled to your own interpretation of what your opponent said or did, that’s fair argument.

But while you’re entitled to your own opinion, you are never entitled to your own facts.

Stay factual, stay out of trouble, and stay in the hunt for the office you’re seeking.

3. Never Let Your Attacks Become Personal

Negative campaign ads often seem personal because they are about a person, but they’re not really personal if you stick to the official record.

Never attack your opponent’s family.  It’ll make you look like a jerk, generate sympathy for the person being attacked, and probably backfire on you.

Don’t attack a candidate for being divorced, or divorced and remarried, no matter how many times it has happened in their life. Depending on who you believe, 30% to 50% of American marriages end in divorce.  By judging your opponent, you’ll also be judging many people you are seeking votes from. Not a good idea.

Don’t attack a candidate over their religion. In a nation where the First Amendment protects our freedom to believe and worship as we choose, it’s easily construed as un-American for a candidate to attack another candidate’s religious beliefs.

The only person whose religious faith your campaign can talk about is yours.  Even then, make sure it matters to the people who will be voting for you. Politicians who get too preachy are viewed with extra skepticism by most voters.

Don’t attack a candidate because their kid has a drug problem. Drug addiction in a child is a nightmare too many of the best parents have to deal with in our country.  Don’t go there.

Now if your candidate has multiple convictions for driving under the influence, you might want to use that in an attack, but test it with a poll first.

A mayor I once knew had four drunk driving offenses.  I asked him how that affected him politically.  He said he got more votes the next time because his voters were drinkers too.

Don’t read that as a license to go and get sauced to win your election.  It is simply a warning to know how voters feel about such things before attacking on that issue.

For the most part, a candidate’s personal voting history, their official votes and acts in elected office, their expense accounts as an officer holder, public statements, public court records, recorded tax liens and other public records are fair game in a campaign.

4. Only Attack On Issue Voters Care About

Just as most voters don’t care about the types of personal attacks mentioned above, there will be many times when voters don’t care much about real issues you think are important.

If you doubt this, look at federal elections for the last forty years.

The federal budget deficit and the national debt are major issues with giant repercussions for the United States in the not too distant future.

However, the national debt and the deficit are not issues that resonate with voters to make a difference in how they vote.  If they did then nearly every member of Congress would be thrown out of office when attacked for not balancing the budget and piling on to the debt.

Instead, incumbents in Congress are re-elected a whopping 96% of the time.

This demonstrates the need to know what is important to voters and tie it to your attack.

If your opponent laid off cops and crime is the major issue, you’ve got a good line of attack there.

If your opponent wants to raise taxes to pay for increased services, yet an audit reveals a few million dollars is unaccounted for, and voters are outraged, then but all means launch that missile.

If you’re running to help improve local schools and your opponent voted against after school programs, it may seem like a good hit.  But if the voters think ensuring the local water supply is safe and clean is the more important issue, the attack may not work.

The point is this: you must know what matters to the voters, usually because you did a poll, and tie your line of attack on any opponent to what the voters value.

5. Never Respond to Attacks That Don’t Matter

Knowing what issues are important to the voters also is helpful in determining whether or not you need to respond to an attack.

If an opponent goes negative on you, your first instinct will be to respond.  Take a breath and think about it before you do.

Does your polling data show you are far enough ahead of your opponent that you can ignore the hit?

If the answer is a resounding “yes” then ignore the attack and keep campaigning full speed ahead.

If the answer is “no” then you need to look at your poll again and determine whether the attack is on an issue that matters to the voters.

If it is, then you need to respond in kind, and quickly.  Clarify your position and then attack your opponent back on the same issue.

An unanswered allegation is considered to be true if a candidate does not respond in a timely fashion.

If the allegation is serious and could affect the outcome of your race, you need to fire back at your opponent as hard as you can.

But if the attack isn’t going to do any damage, let it slide and get your revenge by winning on Election Day.

6. Always Respond in the Medium You Were Attacked

If you’re attacked in a mailer, respond with a mailer.

If you’re attacked on TV, then respond with a television ad.

If you’re attacked with phone calls, respond with phone calls.

Too many candidates don’t understand this rule, and it’s probably the simplest.

If you have to respond to a negative attack by one of your opponents, make sure the same voters who saw that attack, see your counter attack.

It makes no sense to respond to a mailer attacking your record with a television ad, nor to a nasty telephone push poll with a piece of mail.

Respond with the same method in which you were attacked, and hopefully to the same voters.

Since it does take time to get a response mailer out to voters or an ad up on TV, you can respond that same day or the next with telephone calls.

Those telephone calls can help you answer the attack and set the record straight as fast as possible.

Please note:   these calls are not the response.  They are simply a rapid means for you to staunch any bleeding and loss of votes until you can get your major response out in the medium in which you were attacked.

7. Keep Your Attacks Simple

If you have to go negative, you’ll be tempted to throw every bad thing you know about your opponent at them.

Don’t do it, no matter how much visceral joy it might give you.

Having done opposition research on campaigns at many levels, I’ve helped uncover treasure troves of negative information about candidates.  I’ve often wondered, “With all this baggage, how does this person think they can get elected to anything?”

Yet they do run and you’ve got to point out these glaring flaws and shortcomings to the voters.

First of all, throw out anything that your poll does not show is a winning hit.

Once you’ve figured out what hits work against your opponent, pick up to three that can help you bring your opponent down.

If you can, narrow it down to only one thing.

This is typically done by comparing what negatives the voters react to the strongest when you poll them and the issues that are important to the voters in the upcoming election.

Once you have that, see how you can contrast yourself to your opponent in this area.

You also need to keep the line of attack as simple as possible so the voters get it the first time they see it.

The most effective I’ve ever seen this done was in a 2002 Republican State Senate Primary in California.

State Assemblymember Charlene Zettel was running against Assemblymember Dennis Hollingsworth for an open State Senate seat.

Charlene was by far the better candidate.  She had accomplished more in the State Assembly than Dennis and she had raised much more money.  The Election should have been in the bag.

But Charlene had a vote that did not bode well in this very conservative district.

In the Assembly, Charlene voted for a bill that would allow illegal immigrants to attend California’s public universities and community colleges at the same rate as citizens living in California, instead of the high non-resident tuition rate.

Four weeks before the election, Dennis Hollingsworth’s campaign sent out an oversized postcard mailer with Dennis on one side and Charlene on the other.

The simple card read:  Dennis Hollingsworth supports giving in-state tuition to those serving in our military.  Charlene Zettel voted to give in-state tuition to illegal immigrants.

In this conservative Republican primary only a few months after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, who do you think won that election?

Yep.  Dennis Hollingsworth.

Despite Charlene Zettel’s legislative accomplishments and fundraising advantage, that simple attack in line with the views of the voters elevated a back bencher Assemblyman into the California State Senate where he later became the Republican Leader of that body.

I’ve never forgotten the power of one simple hit piece that lined up with the views of the voters.

Candidate Take-Aways

If you find yourself in a tough contest and think you need to go negative, it’s a good possibility you might.

I like to say, “if you think you have to go negative, it’s because you do.”

So if you do, you now have the guidelines I use when making those decisions with my candidates when it comes to going on the attack against an opponent.

Just remember, you don’t always have to “go negative,” but if you do, you’re actually doing a favor for the members of you community by providing this important information about your opponent.

Additionally, if you need to go negative the attack needs to fit in with your campaign’s overall messaging.

To learn the secret formula to craft a winning campaign message, tap this link for instant access to The Winning Message premium course.