Romneyshambles and Obamascare- Negative Campaigning in the 2012 Presidential Elections

Email this to someoneShare on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Share on RedditShare on TumblrShare on LinkedIn


Casting aspersions about a rival’s suitability for a position of power is as old as politics itself. In present day liberal democracies this process is called ‘negative campaigning’, or more colloquially within the USA “mudslinging”.  Negative campaigning is an important facet of any political campaign, as it informs the electorate about the candidates. However, there are implicit dangers to excessive use of negative political messaging; alienating centrist voters, candidates appearing tawdry and petty and not least the danger of demobilizing voters. This article will discuss the use of negative campaigning in the 2012 US presidential election as well as giving examples of its’ historical use.

“Going Negative”

The decision to “go negative” is not an isolated event. The news media tends to present a campaign team’s use of negative messaging as a fixed event that can be explained by simple causal factors like a fall in a poll lead. In reality negative campaigning is only one aspect of a broader electoral strategy. Whilst it is true that the media tend to exaggerate the use of negative campaigning, the 2012 presidential election campaign and indeed the Republican primaries have seen exceptionally high usage of negative campaigning. For example, of the $332 million spent on party political TV broadcasts since the start of the campaign, three quarters of this money has been spent on attack ads.

In key swing states like Florida and Ohio, locals have been barraged with negative broadcasts since the summer.  Personal pitches and attacks are frequently used in a presidential system where one is voting for an individual rather than a party. Yet, this election has seen particularly scathing attacks from both camps.

Costs and Benefits 

The potential benefits of negative campaigning are clear to see; if the attacks are well timed then it can put the other candidate on the back-foot, it can demotivate a rival’s supporters and help frame the debate in elections. However, most political scientists tend to agree that negative campaigning does not encourage people to change their vote. In a more general sense it could be argued that overuse of negative campaigning could be a negative feature of contemporary democracy because it demobilizes voters and tends to give focus to the worst aspects of a candidate’s character and political process. The use of negative campaigning comes with a cautionary label to presidential candidates, warning that relying too heavily on mudslinging as a strategic tool will alienate floating voters and make you look tawdry and petty.  This is precisely what is happening at present in the USA. Obama’s constant reminder to the electorate that Romney is an amoral millionaire sounds great to the party faithful but is increasingly viewed as desperate to outsiders. Romney’s strategy of blaming the recession and the deficit on Obama is seen as equally rum by centrist voters.


Negative Campaigning is a tool much like money. It is only as moral as the agents who use it. Negative Campaigning is an integral part of any campaign as a candidate must explain why they are more suitable candidates for office than their rivals. However there would appear to be some rough guidelines for its “proper” use. It should be part of a broader pitch and not the central message of a campaign, and negative campaigning should only focus on “legitimate” areas to attack such as voting record, policy statements and any on-going improprieties in a candidates life such as financial irregularities . As a rule of thumb, in order not to turn off undecided voters family and personal relationships should be avoided in negative campaigning. Perhaps the most important guide in negative campaigning is whether claims can be substantiated by solid evidence. The 2012 US Presidential Elections have been a bitter fight but thus far both candidates have broadly adhered to the above criteria for “fair play”.

Article by Andrew Tromans. Edited by Ben Mackay

Further reading:

Mark Devin Dwyer, date accessed : 20.10.12


William G. Mayer, ‘In Defense of Negative Campaigning’,  Political Science Quarterly , Vol. 111, No. 3 (Autumn, 1996), pp. 437-455

Lau, Richard R. & Brown Rovner, Ivy – negative campaigning Annual review of political science – Vol.12, 2009, pp.285-306

Online Sources:, Date accessed 20.10.12 Campaigns Still Don’t Matter Much, date accessed 20.10.12 Lexington, The Long Fight, date accessed 20.10.12 Four More Years, date accessed 20.10.12, Everything To Play For, date accessed 20.10.12, Romney and Obama duel over negative ads as campaign enters bitter phase, Paul Harris, Wednesday 15 August 2012 17.40 BST