The 1970s and 80s that ultimately triggered the

The most recent US presidential race between Trump andClinton provided an interesting insight into the way that presidentialcampaigns have been run for the past three or four decades. Millions are spentevery four years to help presidential candidates win elections – both by theirown campaigns, by their parties, and by outsider groups, and 2016 was noexception. The Clinton campaign alone ran more than 400,000 ads amounting to$258 million (Fowler, Ridout and Franz, 2016, p.451). It is the tone of theClinton and Trump campaigns, as well as of those before them, which will be exploredin this essay. 2016 was a year that arguably subscribed to the trend towards anovertly negative campaign tone that has arisen from the 1980s onwards.

Tounderstand how and why negative campaigning has become a repeated tool to helppresidential candidates, it is important first to address what it consists of.Vaccari and Morini (2014, p.21) identify it as ‘any campaign communication thathighlights negative aspects of an opponent or of a policy’ instead of thecandidate’s ‘own positive attributes or preferred policies.

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‘ Similarly, Mayer(1996, p.441) explains that it ‘focuses on the weaknesses and faults of theopposition: the mistakes they have made, the flaws in their character orperformance, the bad policies they would pursue.’ Both definitions show thefoundation of negative campaigning as a focus on attacks towards the rivalcandidate. It is undeniable that this form of campaigning has been trending forseveral decades, and it is the evidence for this trend that this essay willseek to outline.

 Beginning with a short exploration of campaignfinance reforms and Supreme Court decisions in the 1970s and 80s thatultimately triggered the rise in negative campaigning, the resulting increasein certain outsider groups – such as political action committees (PACS) and 527groups – and their involvement in this style of electioneering will then beexplored. The way that the media since the 1980s has consequently been able tocapitalise off of the negative campaigning that these groups adopt, and thusfurther spread the technique, will be addressed, to lead on to an exploration ofhow this has helped to shift the focus of campaigns to the leader’spersonality, rather than their policies, in order to personally attackcandidates. The essay will conclude with the argument that the 2016 Trump-Clintonpresidential campaign is simply the latest in a long line of negative campaignsthat have been occurring since the 1980s.  The attempts at campaign reform from the1970s onwards have undoubtedly affected the way in which campaigns are run, triggeringthe trend in negative campaigning. Luntz (1988, p.6) points to the FederalElection Campaign Act of 1971, the 1974 Campaign Law, and amendments made inlater years, as the beginning of a transformation in electoral campaigning inthe United States. These reforms attempted to regulate the structure ofcampaigning by placing limits on and demanding full disclosure of certaincontributions, by legalizing ‘the formation of political organisationsrepresenting organised labour and large corporations’ and by founding theFederal Election Commission, among other things (Luntz, 1988, p.6).

However,despite the reforms to regulate electioneering, ultimately gaps in thelegislation were found that led to the shift towards negative campaigning. Mark(2009, p.152) importantly highlights the rise in ‘fat-cat donations’ that weretransferred from ‘national party organisations…to private groups that aimed notjust to support their favoured candidate but to tear down the opposition,’ asonly one example of the ways in which these reforms led to the rise in overtlyadversarial campaigning. In many ways, whilst certain campaign approaches wereregulated and limited, it allowed the space for other, less regulated and lesslimited, approaches to take place of the old ones. Furthermore, under thebanner of the imperative Supreme Court ‘Buckley v Valeo’ ruling of 1976 thatconsidered these reforms in great detail, the decision was made that candidateswould actually be allowed to spend unlimited amounts of money on their owncampaigns and also allowed limitless campaign spending, thereby overturning andloosening key aspects of the reforms (Lunts, 1988, p.9).

This transformativeperiod arguably became the catalyst for the shift towards negative campaigning. One effect of these reforms, along withsubsequent Supreme Court decisions regarding them, was the creation of new andinfluential outsider groups who are logistically separate from presidentialcandidates and thus free to deploy negative campaign methods with limitedrepercussions for the candidates they support. The earliest of these outsidergroups to flourish were Political Action Committees (PACs), however withSupreme Court rulings such as ‘Citizens United v Federal Election Commission’in 2010, Super PACs and 527 groups have similarly come into the foreground,adding to the growth in outsider group spending surrounding campaigns and, as aby-product, contributing to a growth in spending towards negative campaignmethods (Fowler, Ridout and Franz, 2016, p.460). Whilst Ansolabehere andIyengar (1995) argue that outsider groups actually contribute more positivemessages than negative, it is undeniable that super PACs and 527 groups havethe freedom and funding to launch extensive attacks against the candidates thatthey do not support, and the evidence of this lies in just how many attacks theypursue throughout each election.

As early as 1988, the National Security PACgenerated one of the most notorious attack ads in presidential history – theWillie Horton ad – something even Ansolabehere and Iyengar (1995, p.129)acknowledge, and this was far from a one-off occurrence. In 2004, the SwiftBoat Veterans for Truth 527 group attacked presidential candidate Kerry byquestioning his military record extensively over several months through the useof attack ads (Vaccari and Morini, 2014). The Trump-Clinton election furtheredthis trend; Priorities USA Action, a pro-Clinton Super PAC, aired 50,000 spotads attacking Trump, and the pro-Trump NRA Institute for Legislative action ran10,000 ads attacking Clinton (Fowler, Ridout and Franz, 2016, p.452). Thisshows the persistent and unwavering use of negative campaigning by the veryoutsider groups that have been legitimised by the electoral reforms.

Even ifAnsolebehere and Iyengar’s (1995) argument that outsider groups prefer positivemessages is true, this does not hide the fact that those messages are not theones that are the most amplified or pervasive – it is the negative ones whichachieve more traction (Ridout and Smith, 2008;Stevens, 2012), and thus show the prevailing effect of outsider groups onnegative campaigning. This type of electioneering is trending and outsidergroups have become one of the most important vessels for it in the wake of thecampaign reforms of the 1970s and 80s. Following from these groups and theiradvertisements is the influence of the media in furthering negativecampaigning. The media has had an important role in the growth of negative campaigningin two ways; the growth of the mass media has given outsider groups andpresidential campaigns a channel through which to spread negative campaign messages,and the media has also encouraged the use of negative campaigning through thepractice of ad amplification (Ridout and Smith, 2008). The growth of broadcastingand the internet has undoubtedly had an effect on negative campaigning – it hasbeen made infinitely easier to access the masses, thus meaning it has been madeeasier to access those who have the potential for voting for the othercandidate (Ansolabehere and Iyengar, 1995, p.

101). What this means is that newtechniques have had to be adopted to deter those who favour the opponentbecause that audience has become more widely accessible through the mass media.Indeed, the growth of the mass media has enabled outsider groups to spreadnegative messages with less repercussions as tools such as the internet can beused for defamations without linking the messages directly with one candidateor another (Vaccari and Morini, 2014). For example, the infamous smear aboutObama being a Muslim created over 600 videos on Youtube with an unprecedentedamount of views (Vaccari and Morini, 2014, p.33). Furthermore, the mass mediaand the internet have also allowed negative campaigning to take on a world ofits own, making ‘slanders…harder to control,’ (Vaccari and Morini, 2014) andallowing 24/7 communication between voters, meaning that once a story ispublicised it becomes the gossip of the nation almost overnight, in a way thatwas inconceivable before these technological developments. In addition to this,the growth of the mass media has not only had the indirect effect of making negativecampaigning easier since the latter half of the 20th century, but ithas also in some ways directly encouraged it.

Arguably, the media’s reaction tonegative campaigning – offering more attention and coverage of controversialstories over positive ones (Ridout and Smith, 2008) – has shown campaigners andoutsider groups that if they want the help of the free media to get their messagesacross, the most effective method is to run negative campaigns. The effect ofad amplification as a result of technological developments (Ridout and Smith,2008) is, therefore, an important factor in driving the negative campaign trendbecause it has shown an easy way to make the most of the free media; a vitaland cheap tool to harness in the process of accessing the mass electorate. Themedia, therefore, has largely encouraged the use of negative campaigning sincethe 1980s, pushing the trend even further.  The trend since the 1980s that has placedcandidates’ personalities over their policies (Luntz, 1988), has also furtherednegative campaigning with the help of the mass media and outsider groups.Arguably, the American electoral system itself encourages a focus on the leaderover their policies due to the ‘majority electoral system and institutionalizedprimary elections,’ (Vaccari and Morini, 2014), and the evidence of this havingbeen exacerbated since the reform laws and the growth in outsider groups andthe mass media is abundant, none more so than in the 2016 presidential election.

As much as 90% of Clinton’s attacks against Trump attacked his personality andability to run the country over his policy promises – three times as many ads asshe used to promote herself (Fowler, Ridout and Franz, 2016, p.459). The 2008election showed the focus on personal attacks clearly also, where an anonymouslie was spread about Obama’s religion which caused much controversy and uproar(Vaccari and Morini, 2014). Mark (2009) argues that the tone of the 2008campaigns were relatively restrained, however understanding that this smear waspersonal, targeted, and aimed at exploiting the racial and religious tensions inthe country, shows that the .

Ads in support of McCain even went so far as tostate Obama was affiliated with ‘terrorists’ such as Ayers (Mark, 2009, p.257).Campaigns have begun to focus on instilling doubt about opponents’ personalcharacteristics, even if these are not directly tied to their ability toenforce effective or positive policies, and arguably this negative trend hasemerged from the growth of candidate centred campaigning that has been amplifiedsince the changes in the media and politics in the last part of the 20thcentury. The combination of campaign reforms,outsider groups, the growth in the mass media and personality centred politicshas undeniably shifted the style of campaigning to a more negative tone. Thesefactors have fed into each other to create the perfect environment for attackads and adversarial campaigns, and presidential candidates and their supportershave been able to harness this atmosphere in an attempt to dissuade voters fromsupporting their opponents. This is not to say that positive or restrainedcampaigns have not been attempted, however the overall tone of campaigns fromthe 1980s through to the 2016 Trump-Clinton presidential election hasundeniably been negative.



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