This post provides more information on the topic of negative campaigning, as discussed in this interview with Cam Slater and Simon Lusk. It includes the ads mentioned in the interview.
Negative campaigning is an important part of a campaign manager’s toolkit. It should be expected, planned for, and responded to or a campaign manager runs the risk of losing the campaign.
Negative campaigning is not limited to negative ads. It goes way beyond ads to include hammering opponents in parliament, and when done well it works. It works when you have a consistent message about an opponent that is negative. It is usually more truthful than positive campaigning with some research saying four times more truthful because if you do not tell the truth, you can be sued for defamation.
It works when it tells the truth about someone, and it reinforces and crystalises what people are already thinking.
National have not prosecuted the case that this is the worst government ever. The examples discussed where this has been done effectively were Helen Clark hammering Shipley’s government ensuring National would have feared going into the house, and the pressure brought on more mistakes. In the Clark administration Lockwood Smith hammered Taito Philip Field in the House.
National could have easily framed Hipkins as useless, and while it is not the core concerns of RCR listeners Labour have failed to deliver on:
- 100,000 houses
- Light Rail in Auckland
- School Truancy
- Money wasted on mergers of health and tertiary sector for no results
- Ram Raids
- Ending Child Poverty.
These are factual and not opinion, so are perfect grounds to attack, and would be simply telling the truth, even if the truth is negative because the government has failed to deliver.
Labour cannot run on their record, so they must run a choice between Hipkins and Luxon, rather than a referendum on their performance in government. This makes it crucial for them to go negative as they must pull down Luxon, and get people to vote Labour out of fear, not because Labour have done a good job.
Johnson’s Daisy ad
Ran once, scandalised the media, got endless earned media so Johnson’s campaign did not have to pay to run the ad.
LBJ’s earlier race
This is one of the oldest and most effective tricks in politics. Every hack in the business has used it in times of trouble, and it has even been elevated to the level of political mythology in a story about one of Lyndon Johnson’s early campaigns in Texas.
The race was close and Johnson was getting worried. Finally he told his campaign manager to start a massive rumour campaign about his opponent’s life-long habit of enjoying carnal knowledge of his barnyard sows.
“Christ, we can’t get away with calling him a pig-f**ker,” the campaign manager protested. “Nobody’s going to believe a thing like that.”
“I know,” Johnson replied. “But let’s make the sonofabitch deny it.”
The Framing of Dukakis by GHW Bush
The Willie Horton Ad
The Tank Ad
Dukakis in a tank with a tie on (opponents picked this up and mocked him)
McCain in 2000
Lies about McCain’s adopted Bangladeshi daughter.
After McCain won the New Hampshire primary, people in South Carolina received phone calls asking, “Would you be more or less likely to vote for John McCain if you knew he had fathered an illegitimate black child?”
Obama’s v Romney
Romney ran out of money after the primary and was not on the airwaves over the summer. Obama’s campaign defined him over the summer as rich, out of touch and not a normal guy, partly by talking about all the businesses Bain had acquired then cut jobs.
Trump and Framing His Opponents
Trump has a feral genius for framing opponents:
- Crooked Hilary
- Low Energy Jeb
- Little Marco.
This does not always work. It did not work with Sleepy Joe, who made the election a referendum on Trump’s four chaotic years in the White House and stayed in his basement due to Covid pledging to return normality back to politics.
Much of this is not actual advertising. It is negative, it is based on the truth, and it works. National are amateur, as they were not prepared when Jacinda left. They will argue they didn’t know she was leaving, which is infuriating as she was Prime Minister, not Queen, and she was always going to leave at some point. They were not prepared for that point whenever it happened.
National should have had a playbook for each prospective leader, understanding that much of the work would never be used but they could immediately implement the plan for framing Jacinda’s replacement if they needed to.
Hipkins has a track record of failure. He failed to buy the Covid vaccines for six weeks meaning longer lockdowns. He failed to achieve any real benefit with the polytech merger. He failed to stop the ram raids as Police Minister. He could easily have been defined as Mr Stuff Up not Mr Fix it, and National could have had this message ready to go and their proxies ready to support it.
They could have easily defined the other aspiring Labour Leaders:
Grant Robertson: Cardy wearing civil servant straight off the set of Gliding On, who has wasted billions of hard earned taxpayers’ money on (a long list of failures that need to be tested to see what enrage the voters most).
Kiri Allan: “I hope she can handle the pressure and can learn to manage people and her drinking better than she has a minister.”
Michael Wood: Reminds everyone a bit of Simon Bridges, the kind of slimy little bastard that most people want to punch in the face but do not because there is a law against it OR he couldn’t build a house of cards let alone light rail.
National should have digital ads ready to go for each of these potential leaders, so the first few hours after they are announced the story immediately moves from this wonderful new leader to National saying they are useless because (whatever reason tests best) and then the new leader must defend their record immediately.
Labour should have done the same with Luxon, who is very easy to frame:
- Out of touch and does not understand people in middle New Zealand.
- Name him Uncle Fester or Captain Underpants and stick to the name.
- Hammer his likability, not his policies (Luxon is a bloke you wouldn’t want to have a beer with).
Current Negative Ads
ACT’s Winston ad was not very good: it should have had a scowling photo, and the ad should have been much clearer. Some people thought it was an ad for Winston, which should have never happened if the ad team had have got it right. It was way too ambiguous.
CTU’s Attack Ads
The basic premise is that Luxon is out of touch. It is a pretty good premise, but they do not seem to understand that talking policy does not really attack Luxon’s weaknesses.
The CTU would have been better concentrating on playing the man, not the ball, and reinforcing the perception that Luxon is unlikeable and doesn’t understand the average New Zealander. They could have reinforced this message by having a large range of New Zealanders saying what they think of Luxon and why they do not think Luxon understands them.
This would have given other New Zealanders the permission structure to vote against Luxon because they would have had their feelings validated by people like them.
Defending Against Negative Campaigns
National were amateur in their response to the CTU ads. They were getting bullied, so they had a big sook about it and the bully learned to continue.
The far better response would have been to use political jujitsu on them, immediately hammer Labour back. It was the perfect opportunity to say roughly “these bastards are so useless they cannot run on their record, so they are going negative”. The actual statement could have been something like:
“Labour cannot run on their record because it is appalling, so they have to run against us. We are happy to run against Labour’s record on failure. They failed to build the light rail. They failed to build 100,000 kiwi build houses. They failed to buy the vaccines in time. They failed to improve our hospitals or polytechs with bureaucratic reforms. They have divided our country promoting co-governance. They have failed a generation of school kids who wag school with no consequences. They have failed our communities by not stopping ram raids. Labour can go on as much as they like about us, but they should look in the mirror and see people who have failed at every step in government.”
Emphasising Existing Perceptions
Some potential examples to illustrate this point follow.
People who care about co-governance do not trust Luxon or National on co-governance so their message about him to this audience is “Do not let Luxon sell us out to the Maoris” in a more subtle form. Note that this attack would come from a right-wing party or activist organisation and would completely enrage the liberal elite and promote the message even further. For those who think that this is somewhat racist, it is, but plenty of voters are somewhat racist and the ad would probably work, even though I would never run it myself.
ACT can be attacked for their pro-immigration stance: “ACT means more immigrants blocking our roads, taking our jobs, pushing up house prices and filling our hospitals and schools so good hardworking Kiwis cannot use them”.
As with all parts of campaigning, negative campaigning does not work in isolation. A negative campaign cannot get a dud candidate elected. It cannot overcome a good incumbent who is well liked in their community. And it cannot be used in isolation, it needs to be a part of a much broader strategy.
Negative campaigning can often be confronting and enraging, as some of the examples above are. There is a fine line between what is acceptable and what is not, and that line should be defined by the candidate, not the campaign team. The candidate must decide what they are comfortable with and what is inconsistent with their own values.