How Negative Campaigning Works
Why did Mitt Romney lose? The explanation lies in the universal rules of marketing and communication. These laws are rooted in a Right Brain understanding of how the laws of branding and positioning work in the voters' minds. The laws always work because they are based on neuroscience, the science of how the mind works.
This article is the second installment on the same theme (the first is here) providing further explanation for the defeat based on how the mind works, specifically on the impact that negative suggestions have on the minds of voters. If Republicans fail to understand the mistakes the campaign made in 2012, there is a real danger that they will repeat them in 2014 and in 2016, thereby assisting Obama in creating a dynasty.
The Obama campaign in 2012 was the most negative campaign in modern American political history. Obama and his supporters successfully evoked fear in the minds and hearts of the voters. They painted Romney as a heartless, greedy, manipulating business man who ships jobs overseas and stands by while the spouses of his employees die from cancer. Incredibly, Senator Reid portrayed Mitt Romney as a hypocrite and accused him of being a felon for not paying his taxes in ten years.
The Obama campaign systematically set up Romney and other rich people as scapegoats to encourage envy and blame for all sorts of problems in the country.
In short, the Obama campaign demonized him and other Republicans by engaging in character assassination on a daily basis.
The media piled on uncritically, not investigating the facts and not caring that they were spreading lies about a man with unusually excellent character, especially for a politician.
And then on the last days of the campaign Obama completed the strategy by urging voters to seek revenge by equating this base human emotion with a vote for the president, to wit: "The best way to get revenge is to vote." Revenge for what? Obama had already established his case; at this point it was not necessary to spell out the reasons for revenge in detail.
To understand why the negative campaign worked so well for Obama, it is necessary to know how the mind is affected by negative suggestions. Negatives are powerful poison to the mind. They impact the Right Brain, the emotional mind. They always have an impact, especially when they are repeated again and again. And in this case, Obama had the benefit of the media repeating the negatives over and over.
In a presidential campaign, when the negatives are connected to character attributes that people fear will affect them personally and harm them and their families, negative messages are especially effective. Whenever such negative suggestions are in the air, they must always be countered and dispelled promptly. Ignoring them merely encourages people to believe them.
But as a matter of strategy, Romney systematically ignored the attacks on him as a person, believing incorrectly that his accomplishments and his résumé would speak for him at every turn. In this respect, his advisors and consultants did him a grave disservice. Apparently, they are unaware of how the mind works; otherwise, they would have had a strategy to counter the impact of the negative campaigning that produced so many false criticisms of Romney's character.
Consider another presidential campaign; George Herbert Walker Bush vs. Michael Dukakis in 1988. In that campaign Republicans presented Dukakis as a man who pardons murderers by broadcasting a meancing picture of convicted felon Willie Horton. The campaign also made use of a picture of Dukakis (distributed originally by the Democrats themselves) looking silly wearing an Army helmet while riding in a tank. This commercial presented a stark contrast to George Bush who after eight years as vice-president was well known as a WWII bomber pilot and war hero. It paints the picture of his military inexperience and raises doubts about his suitability to be commander-in-chief. Worse for Dukakis, the Willie Horton ad portrayed him as a governor who pardons murderers and although factually correct in this instance, goes beyond silliness and inexperience and emphasizes poor judgment and lack of responsibility, while claiming that he cannot be trusted and that he does not care about the people.
Dukakis and his advisors decided to ignore the images that trivialized him and attacked his character. As a result, these pictures and the associated messages stuck in the minds of many voters, thereby finishing him off in the minds of the voters.
The lesson here is that negative attacks of all kinds, but especially attacks on character, can never be ignored. The reason is that the negatives stick in the mind. When visually based such as the one used against Dukakis, they access the Right Brain, the seat of emotion and they affect the voters even among people who do not necessarily "believe" the messages one-hundred percent. Therefore, negative messages must always be answered, for if they are not, then the other side is handed the gift of being able to define and position its opponent on a silver platter. The failure to rebut these attacks virtually hands the opposition the opportunity to set the agenda and control the terms of the debate.
Attacks on character are especially dangerous, because character is the most important attribute for a presidential candidate. Character is often poorly understood, because it speaks to the ability to know the difference between good and evil and to the confidence the voters can have that once elected the candidate they vote for will make decisions on this basis.
In 2012 the Romney campaign made the same mistake as Dukakis and his advisors had made. The campaign failed to respond to advertising that was based on character assassination.
When the negative attacks occur in a campaign, the only safe strategy is to counter the negatives proactively. The voters must be able to visualize the candidate in ways that contradict and transcend the negatives.
There is an added benefit to countering negative ads and messages. When a proactive counterstrategy is conceived and executed effectively, many voters will feel that the attacks were unfair and unjust, and will turn away from the campaign and the candidate that is responsible for the negative attacks.
In positioning language, the Obama campaign positioned Romney! The Obama campaign successfully positioned Romney early in the campaign long before the conventions. They positioned him as unsuitable for the presidency based on his character!
The Romney people never countered these vicious attacks, mistakenly convinced that they were so incredible that no one would believe them. Once positioned in this way by the Obama campaign, it would have been difficult for the Romney people to counter the positioning and change it; they really needed to counter it immediately on a day by day basis before the position was established in the minds of the voters. However, the negative messages could have been countered successfully, had the advisors understood the Laws of Positioning and applied them effectively.
Dr. Charles T. Kenny is president of The Right Brain People® www.rightbrainpeople.com