Why “Going Negative” in a Local Election Rarely Works

It’s a good idea to plan for your opponent going negative on you in a local election, but that doesn’t mean you should plan for going negative on your opponent.

Here’s an unfortunate truth: in large political campaigns – congressional, gubernatorial or presidential races – negative campaigning, when done correctly, works very well. Most people, when asked, will tell you that “mudslinging” doesn’t sway them in big campaigns . . . but the results tell a different story. A well-researched, well-executed negative campaign can “move the needle” away from an opponent by several points. Opposition researchers (or “oppo” researchers) are paid hefty fees by large campaigns, and for good cause.

The reason why “oppo” works so well in large campaigns is because candidates in these races are often widely unknown by the people whose votes they are asking for. Many times, a candidate in a large race starts off “undefined;” voters simply don’t have an opinion of him one way or another. The best candidates work hard to “define” themselves to the voters early in the campaign; less savvy candidates let their opponents “define” them. Once an opponent uses effective oppo to define you as an unsavory or untrustworthy character, it’s hard to change the voters’ minds.

negative political campaigning

In a local race, though, candidates are often already well known by many people in the community. In some cases, they’ve spent years among the voters; graduating from the local school, working professionally with the residents, shopping at the same grocery stores and attending the same local events. Their family members, co-workers and former classmates live in the neighborhoods. These candidates have already been “defined,” for better or for worse.

Trying to “re-define” your opponent in a local race, therefore, is often a tall order. Even if you do discover some unsavory detail about their past that most residents aren’t aware of, it’s usually a major misstep to try and capitalize on it. When someone already thinks they know a person well, they don’t take kindly to a political candidate trying to change their opinion of them. Whether the negative campaign you initiate is true or not, you run the risk of alienating a block of voters whose opinions about your opponent are already cast in stone.

Rather than slinging mud on your opponent in a local race, it’s often better to concentrate your messaging on “defining” yourself. Focus on telling positive elements of your story, not negative elements of your opponent’s story. Unless the information you have about your opponent is criminal, it probably won’t “move the needle” in your direction at all. And if it really is criminal . . . well, let’s just say that it’s better for the authorities – and the local news outlets – to handle it for you.

If you must go negative in your campaign, then make it “comparative.” Concentrate on comparing relevant records and policy positions. Is your opponent an office holder who has a record of official actions as an elected official? Then explain to the voters why certain official actions he took weren’t good for his constituents. Do you and your opponent differ on policy? Then compare your plans with the plans your opponent has advocated, and explain why yours are better for constituents. Do you have more applicable experience than your opponent? Then outline how your experiences make you a better for the job.

Don’t give in to the temptation to go nuclear in your local race. If you do, it’s at your own risk. And don’t say I didn’t warn you when it blows up in your face.

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