You hear it every campaign year. This is the most negative campaign year in history. It seems so true because we are in the moment.

After some reflection there are some questions that naturally arise. Are today’s campaigns negative compared to those of the past? Why do candidates go negative? What does all of this say about the media, and moreover society? Are today’s campaigns negative compared to those of the past?

Historical perspective

After some digging here are some of the nastiest campaigns on record:

1800- In the country’s first contested presidential election, supporters of Thomas Jefferson claimed incumbent John Adams wanted to marry off his son to the daughter of King George III, creating an American dynasty under British rule. Jefferson haters called the challenger a fraud, a coward, a thief, and “a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father.” Jefferson won.

1884- The race for the presidency produced two of the most infamous slogans in political history. One came from a Catholic-bashing Protestant minister who dubbed the Democrats the party of “Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion.” The other emerged after the Democrats’ candidate, Grover Cleveland, was accused of fathering an illegitimate child: Supporters of Republican James Blaine taunted, “Ma, ma, where’s my pa? Gone to the White House, ha ha ha!” Cleveland won.

And finally the most recent nasty campaign:

2004- With this contest being merely 12 years ago, most readers will remember the head to head battle of George W. Bush and John Kerry. But this campaign wasn’t the nastiest of that political season in the eyes of many political . A Texas Congressional race between Rep. Pete Sessions, a Republican stalwart, against Democratic Rep. Martin Frost takes the prize. Late in the campaign, Frost aides gave the press a 1970s-era picture of college streakers, one of whom was Sessions. The Sessions camp responded by exposing Frost’s planned fundraiser with Peter Yarrow of the folk trio Peter, Paul, and Mary. Whats wrong with that? Well the Sessions crew the revealed that Yarrow had served three months in prison for taking “immoral and indecent liberties” with a fan that was 14. Sessions won.

Why do candidates go negative?

Very early in the process of the campaign for the democratic nomination Senator Bernie Sanders declared ‘We’re ‘Sick And Tired Of Hearing About Your Damn Emails!’ in response to questioning about Hillary Clinton’s email scandal. Senator Sanders was noble in his efforts to run a clean campaign from the start. Even if one doesn’t agree with his political views, they could certainly applaud this effort.

However, it was almost at the moment that Hillary Clinton saw her lead slipping with losses in Wisconsin that she and her campaign decided to go negative. Clinton fired a barrage of attacks at Bernie Sanders, questioning his commitment to the Democratic Party and accusing him of enabling the gun industry to arm mass killers, as she seeks to regain liberals’ backing.
This put the Sanders campaign not only on the defense but also on the counter attack because well its started to affect his numbers.

The Trump campaign has had the advantage of being the presumptive nominee for some time now. The Trump camp began attacking the other presumptive nominees during the Republican debates, but quickly moved to Hillary with her large lead in super delegates. The current high-water mark for these attack happened just yesterday when Trump posted this ad to his Instagram account.

Is Hillary really protecting women?

A post shared by President Donald J. Trump (@realdonaldtrump) on

But why?

With surveys showing the following data why would this continue?

  • 59% believe that all or most candidates deliberately twist the truth.

  • 39% believe that all or most candidates deliberately lie to voters.

  • 43% believe that most or all candidates deliberately make unfair attacks on their opponents. Another 45% believe that some candidates do.

  • 67% say they can trust the government in Washington only some of the time or never.

  • 87% are concerned about the level of personal attacks in today’s political campaigns.

  • Because negative ads work. No matter how slanderous the accusation may be it forces the other side to respond, clarify, and most of the time stoop to their level.

One could also argue that PAC’s ads are another reason for the increase in negative campaigning. This is due to the fact that they are mostly a faceless organization that can generally say what they want without the candidate they support being affected.

This again puts the opposing candidate in a defense and retaliate mode even though the candidate they support could have been running a squeaky clean campaign.

An article in says the following on the matter:

The Influence of Negative Campaign Ads
Even though voters hold such attitudes, are they nonetheless swayed by the messages presented to them in negative campaign ads?

The conventional wisdom among campaign professionals is that negative ads do, in fact, work. That is, while voters might not like negative ads, their perceptions of candidates attacked in negative ads are tarnished by the information they are exposed to.

Ah yes, perception. Perception is indeed reality is it not? These ads make you question what you think you know about the candidate. When looking at it that way it does make sense.

What does all of this say about the media and society?

If anything the fact that the ads have air time speaks to the media more than that of society. Media outlets should be more cautious of what goes on the airwaves instead of just taking the check.

However that’s probably a pipe dream as we will always respond to those ads. Therefore, they will continue to be produced.

If anything the ads reveal our very human nature since as a society. These spots tend to appeal to our “Lizard Brain”. When things appeal to this part of our brain we tend to lose reason.

Let’s be positive here and posit that maybe sometimes some truth does come out in the discourse between candidates regarding these attacks and that helps better inform the electorate (for those that watch the debates).

It remains to be seen how this presidential race will shape up from this point. However, it appears that Donald trump will continue to press it to the extremely negative and attempt to “Swift Boat” Hillary Clinton.

However, its going to be very hard to eclipse the negativity of the past.