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Canaries in the coal mine
To be sure, negative campaigning is a hallmark of competitive elections. Wherever there are two candidates locked in a serious and heated battle for power, attacks are sure to follow. But excessive negativity such as we’ve seen from these at-risk GOP incumbents in swing districts may very well be yet another signal of impending misfortunes for them. Most politicians prefer to run positive campaigns, and do so when the stakes are low. But when their backs are against the wall, that’s when they start swinging.
Negative ads simply have more electoral value than positive ones. This was best put by Roger Sterling from the acclaimed series Mad Men, who posited, “when you run an ad that’s positive, you only convince the people who are already voting for you. But when you run an ad that’s critical you get a shot at the people who are on the fence.” Therein lies the rub. Only by making the alternative look unpalatable can a candidate secure undecided voters. In going excessively negative, it seems that these incumbents are making scorched earth efforts to shore up undecideds and protect their seats. If they’re fighting this hard, it only speaks to the strength of the movement working against them.