Voters claim they dislike negative campaigning. But voters make choices based
on negative tactics. And, even more interesting, voters react negatively to
candidates who don’t hit back after an attack.
All of that sounds just a little irrational until you consider that it is a
natural reaction to the media environment, as described today by
Sometimes, when the candidates aren’t playing the negativity game,
reporters do it for them. The media crave negativity because it makes for more
exciting stories ("Senator Smith slammed Congressman Jones yesterday, calling
him a boob and a bozo, as their war of words escalated."). So much more
interesting than the details of Wesley Clark’s child health insurance plan.
It is exactly the details of policy that will have very real effects on
citizens’ lives. But the media portrayal of the horse race encourages different
behavior from both voters and politicians. How might voters react to negative
attacks if most campaign reporting dealt with policy? How might candidates
respond to a media environment in which the details of policy were more
important than the latest spin point?
One would think journalists would be embarrassed by Kurtz’s honest
description. But just the opposite is true.