FUD as a Strategy

So who doesn’t love a good negative campaign ad? We say we don’t, but every election is dubbed the most negative in history. This chart, by the Wesleyan Media Project, shows the steady decline in positive ads during the last few National campaigns. With four months to go, the 2016 election shows no signs of slowing the trend (Wilson, 2016). While technological advances in media has no doubt helped that trend grow in all new creative ways, it is by no means a new phenomenon. With the possible exception of our first president, who of course ran unopposed, there are examples of dastardly strategic statements sprinkled throughout our history.WesleyanMediaProject

Many point to our country’s first contested presidential campaign in 1800, between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. Jefferson supporters spread stories claiming that Adams had plans to “marry off his son to the daughter of King George III, creating an American dynasty under British rule (Mark, 2006). As is the style with many political attacks, this was a claim that was hard to refute. Adams attempted return shots to Jefferson, but the damage was done and Jefferson went on to win.

Riding a wave of anti-Catholicism, stoked by a highly active force of KKK demonstrators, Herbert Hoover’s supporters attacked his opponent, four time governor of New York Al Smith, for his religion. He was the first Catholic Presidential candidate. The misinformation included a picture of Smith at the mouth of the soon to open Holland Tunnel. Republicans declared that the tunnel actually led under the ocean to the basement of the Vatican. Down in Daytona, FL, the school board reportedly directed that notes be sent home with children readings: “We must prevent the election of Alfred E. Smith to the presidency. If he is chosen president, you will not be allowed to read or have a bible.” (Cummins, 2008)

Feeding on racist bigotry, Edmund Muskie supporters, in the campaign against Richard Nixon, started receiving late-night calls from rude campaigners claiming to be for Muskie. The callers were black, or pretended to be, and claimed to have been “bused up from Harlem to work for Muskie.” This, and other dirty tactics, sunk Muskie’s chances.

The common strategy of all these attacks is to focus on fear, uncertainty and doubt, or FUD. Despite warnings to fully consider the ramifications of going negative, campaigns are increasingly taking it there earlier (Bike, 1998).

The negative approach seems to work for a few reasons. The fact is, “negative information is more memorable than positive—just think how clearly you remember an insult.” Also, a negative ad has a complex implied comparison between the candidates. If one candidate is a bad xyz, then by implication, the other candidate must be good (Lariscy, 2012). Whatever the reason we have to wonder where this continued negative trend is taking us.



Bike, W., Negative Campaigning: Advice for Attacker and Attackee. The Heartland Institute. (1998). Retrieved at https://www.heartland.org/policy-documents/negative-campaigning-advice-attacker-and-attackee

Cummins, J., Dirty Campaigning in the Roaring Twenties: Herbert Hoover vs. Al Smith. Mental Floss. (2008). Retrieved at http://mentalfloss.com/article/19897/dirty-campaigning-roaring-twenties-herbert-hoover-vs-al-smith

Journalist’s Resource. Negative political ads and voter effects: Research roundup. (2016). Retrieved at http://journalistsresource.org/studies/politics/ads-public-opinion/negative-political-ads-effects-voters-research-roundup

Lariscy, R., Why negative political as work. CNN. (2012). Retrieved at http://www.cnn.com/2012/01/02/opinion/lariscy-negative-ads/

Mark, D., The 10 Dirtiest Political Races in U.S. History. Reason.com. (2006). Retrieved at http://reason.com/archives/2006/10/13/the-10-dirtiest-political-race

Wilson, R., Why 2016 Will Be the Most Negative Campaign in History. Morning Consult. (2016). Retrieved at https://morningconsult.com/2016/05/23/2016-will-negative-campaign-history/



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s