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August 30, 2006

Why go negative?

Kevin E. Dayhoff

The election season is upon us and - like a horde of ravaging locusts - the negative campaigners are out in full force this cycle. Why?

As the public clamors to hear a discussion on the issues - growth management, infrastructure and school improvement, public safety, taxes and the scope and structure of government - some candidates and their rabid supporters instead sport t-shirts that scream "I've got issues."

Selective quotations and trivialities trumping substance in an obvious attempt to distort the facts seem to be the rule of the day.

And it is always a source of amazement to observe folks who, in the same utterance, plead for understanding and tolerance for their views and then demonize anyone who doesn't agree with them.

A rule among classier community leaders prohibits promoting oneself by personally sniping at someone who holds a different point of view. It is not only bad form but smacks of bullying and could wind up hurting your own cause, as you only look like someone with the warmth and humanity of a water moccasin.

Yet, negative campaigning seems to be on the upswing in Maryland.

So, why are we seeing the acidic negative campaigning this year?

Usually negative campaigning rears its ugly head in any one or combination of five factors. Take your pick. Does this look like a candidate you know?

Often a challenger will resort to negative campaigning when attempting to unseat a well-entrenched incumbent. In Maryland challengers abound in an attempt to unseat many well-established office holders.

It's a difficult task. Usually a challenger needs to have an overwhelmingly persuasive and compelling platform to defeat an incumbent - or ride the wave of sea change in approaches to government. That kind of change is difficult to cultivate in an election campaign; it will only come from the grassroots.

The second factor comes into play when a challenger is a relative newcomer; either to the area or to the political arena.

In Maryland, this dynamic is extensive as many new folks have moved into the area and feel strongly that many people in leadership roles are country bumpkins and have handled issues, such as growth and development, poorly.

They often feel a huge sense of entitlement and are vehement about their positions and justify their unpleasantness by their sense of entitled outrage. Often these individuals are insufferable, but - fortunately - not very often successful unless the political sea change is developing.

The third reason is often claimed but usually false. This is when an incumbent is accused of demonstrated incompetence, malfeasance, dereliction of duty, or a palpable plain and simple lack of skills, knowledge and ability to do the job.

To be sure, there is lots of partisan political spin and rhetoric being bandied about; however, few incumbents have demonstrated this dynamic.

A fourth cause for unsavory campaigning happens when a candidate is not able to raise the money necessary to finance today's expensive direct mail, newspaper/radio ads, or highway billboards.

The fifth factor is very prevalent in Maryland. There is a great "sorting-out" as government is expected increasingly to take on an expanded role in an attempt to solve all of a community's problems.

Folks want government to do things that a cohesive community - read that private sector - could handle in the past. This brings out a pronounced clash between those who are not interested in seeing government get any bigger, more expensive or intrusive. Citizens want a change for the better, but a sea change has not gelled as too many folks abhor the idea that government (and taxes) is getting bigger.

So, does negative campaigning really work?

Conventional wisdom is that it does not in local contests as it simply offends too many voters. Local contests are often retail and person-to-person and, unless you have truly drunk the Kool-Aid about a particular candidate, negative campaigning is ineffective and offensive.

The shame is that many of the challengers have good ideas and are capable and competent, but have lost their moorings with the negative campaigning, and lost the very voters they wish to attract.

Why so many of these folks have gone negative is making this fall's elections into a great big "Why?"

Why so many candidates are negative this year may be a mystery, but here's why it won't work. Many citizens have a generalized sense of malaise but lack the anger to make a great change. There have been too many changes in recent years.

Many voters are already dealing with enough unpleasantness in their lives. Growth and development has brought about congestion, complexity, traffic problems and a lost sense of community.

Crime statistics have recently increased. Raising children seems ever-more difficult. Taxes have become a burden in a county (Carroll) that has traditionally prided itself in keeping taxes reasonable. Gas and utility expenses are rising.

And there are so many strangers in the community - you no longer know your neighbor, local grocer, banker, insurance agent or teacher. Who is going to vote for an angry stranger?

Things seem disjointed and out of kilter. On the national scene, the war in Iraq seems endless, with no conclusion in sight; and terrorism is a constant presence in the news.

The unpleasantness of challengers, and, in some cases, incumbents, has turned-off many voters. Faced with the devil we know or the unpleasant challenger, many voters are going to go in the voting booth and choose the incumbent, or the rare, gifted and positive challenger with well articulated changes in approach.

This year, the art of negative campaigning will be the art of running a losing campaign.

Kevin Dayhoff writes from Westminster, E-mail him at:

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