Five keys to an effective negative communication effort

How many pundits and consultants have you heard say that they “go negative” because it works? Almost all of them.


If you’re going to go negative, make sure you do it in a way that persuades voters.

In many cases, they are right. But the hard truth is that in many other cases the negative campaign did little to change the outcome of the race. Sometimes it even blew up the attacker.

This isn’t a screed against negative campaigning. We’re firm believers in negative campaigning. It’s a screed against bad negative campaigning–and there’s a lot of that going around.

A successful negative messaging effort has certain requirements.

      • It has to be factual. While this should go without saying, the more you have to stretch the facts or “spin” them to make the attack work, the more likely it is to blow up in the attackers face. You can use the facts to draw your own conclusions but you can’t change the facts themselves.


  • It has to be plausible. Even the most truthful attacks can sound absurd if you don’t give them rationale. Voters have an innate sense of when there is more to the story than you are telling them. When you attack someone for doing something that appears to defy common-sense, (“Hillary Biden voted to let sex offenders out of prison early”) you have to give some rationale for why someone would do it.


  • It provides new information (or a novel perspective on old information). If the vast majority of voters have top-of-mind awareness of some flaw an opponent has, telling them about it again in an attack ad or mailer is not going to change their opinion of the candidate under attack. They have already factored that information into their voting decision and your ad rehashing it (and the money you spent on it) will have almost no persuasive value.


  • It has to be relevant to the recipient. This is one of those things that seem obvious, but we never cease to be amazed at how many attacks are on subjects that the electorate as a whole just does not care about. A lot of personal attacks fall into this category. The point of attack has to connect back to a salient factor in the recipients’ decision-making. Otherwise they won’t even pay attention to it.


  • It has to actually mention/show your opponent. Too many campaigns are skittish about mentioning the opponent by name or showing their opponent. They would rather refer to the opponent as “my opponent.” That’s a huge mistake. First, you can’t count on voters to know who your opponent is, especially as you get farther down the ballot. Second, you want to tie your negative information to the opponent. When voters hear your opponent’s name or see their face later on, you want them to immediately recall your negative information. You can only do that if you present your attack with the opponent’s name and image featured prominently.


These are very broad rules of effective negative campaigning. In the coming weeks, we will delve into them individually with examples of how to do it right.

One Response to “Five keys to an effective negative communication effort”

  1. Generally speaking, your comments are plausible. However, negative campaigning has many downsides. In fact, I would go on to say that- most voters are turned off by negative campaigning. I’m reminded of the words of Abe Lincoln who wrote: ” if you engage in mudslinger be sure to dig a hole for two…for you will surely ose ground while throwing dirt.”


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