Negative campaigns in politics are akin to steroids in sports: Although deplored, they work. Both Clinton and Trump better hope that continues to be true. Due to the public’s irredeemably low opinion of them, necessity is going to continue compelling them into dueling negative campaigns.
Saying Clinton and Trump are unpopular with the American public is understatement. They are in a class by themselves compared to recent candidates.
In Gallup’s latest survey (released August 11), Clinton had just a 39% favorability rating, while Trump had 32%. Bad as these figures obviously are, they are even worse in comparison to their predecessors.
Looking at August scores in the year they first sought the presidency, the last three presidents’ scores were roughly twice Clinton and Trump’s. Bill Clinton had a 57% favorabilty rating in 1992; George W. Bush had a 67% rating in 2000; and Obama’s was 63% in 2008.
Even more telling, the most recent first-time candidates who went on to lose also outperformed today’s two nominees at this point in the race. In August 1996, Dole’s public favorability rating was 49%. In 2000, Gore’s was 52%. In 2004, Kerry had a 52% rating; in 2008, McCain scored 59%; and in 2012, Romney’s was 48%.
Not one of these other nominees — winners or losers — had a lower favorability rating than their unfavorability rating. Both Clinton and Trump are not simply behind their predecessors — both winners and losers — at the same point in their races, their unfavorable ratings are roughly the same as their predecessors’ favorable ratings.
Compared to recent elections, this is uncharted territory. Historically, it is hard to recall one such unpopular candidate, let alone two.
Therefore, both candidates are likely to determine their unpopularity is so great that the odds of increasing their positive ratings are less than those of further increasing their opponent’s negative rating. This race does not just threaten to become one dimensional, but one directional: Down.
As past polling shows, presidential candidates usually have their own positive public ratings. Wanting to accentuate these, they spend a good deal of time positively defining themselves.
Further, a desire to protect their positive rating with the public is a brake on being too negative on an opponent for too long. People generally vote for the candidate they like. Going negative means running the risk of damaging your own standing in the process.
So candidates of the recent past, having less to exploit with their opponent and more to lose themselves, have encountered natural political limits to their negative campaigning. None of those limits exist this year. Instead, the reversed favorabilty ratings also reverse the rationale to limit negative campaigning. What once was a brake, is now the accelerator.
American presidential politics and its approaching use of negative campaigning finds itself in a position similar to American sports’ encounters with performance enhancing drugs. Of all the things said about PEDs, the one thing never said about them is that they do not work. They do, and that’s why some athletes succumb to them and why reputable sports has for some time been so concerned with eliminating them.
They harm the users physically and the honest athletes competitively. And ultimately, the sport itself. By cheating the fans, it eventually sours them on the sport.
Negative campaigning in politics is similar. Just as PEDs are the refuge of the failed athlete — those who could not otherwise succeed or who have abandoned the real meaning of competition — so too negative campaigning is the last resort of the politician with little left to lose.
Resorting to an over-reliance on negative campaigning is admission of conventional failure. It is also an implicit recognition that the candidate’s personal goal of victory is of greater importance than the system they are seeking to serve.
In other respects, however, predominantly negative campaigns are worse. Negative campaigning hurts even the winning candidate because it serves to delegitimize the winner as well as the loser. Our constitutional system is dependent on the executive branch as much as the other two. Having the person who will head it lowered in the eyes of the electorate has ramifications on the underlying system.
Most importantly, in politics, there are no spectators. Voters are themselves participants in the process. If they are alienated from the electoral process, this is far worse than a sport’s disillusioned fans.
America is rightfully bracing for a negative campaign over the next two months. The candidates’ unpopularity will drive them to it. Regardless of who wins this war of attrition, that candidate will emerge the worse for it — and more importantly so will the voters and our electoral system.