With the Ontario election campaign just into its second week, most reporters and columnists are commenting on how negative it has become so quickly. Television, radio and print ads have not even begun, and the three major parties are already spending more time attacking each other than explaining their own platforms.
Tory leader Ernie Eves has focused on bashing Liberal leader Dalton McGuinty
Recent electoral history suggested that this would be a very negative personal campaign, even though conventional wisdom suggests that negative campaigns simply turn off the electorate.
But in this case, conventional wisdom is wrong. Like Willie Sutton, who robbed banks because "that's where the money is," political parties go negative because that's where the votes are.
Attack campaigns and political mudslinging have a long and not-so-glorious past, both here and south of the border. In the United States, opponents of Thomas Jefferson's presidential bid suggested he would lead respectable "wives and daughters" into prostitution. During the Civil War, opponents of Abraham Lincoln did not hesitate to call him a liar and despot. The now-clich�d tag line, "Would you buy a used car from this man?" was used long before the Watergate scandal to question the integrity of Richard Nixon. And Canadian campaigns were not much cleaner: our first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, enjoyed his liquor and this predilection became a regular target of those campaigning against him.
Yet despite their pedigree, identifying a negative ad can still be a contentious exercise, because the attacker always claims to act on the purest of motives. Exaggerating the policies of your opponents? No, simply explaining the flaws in their platforms. Character assassination? No, just drawing attention to questions of leadership and integrity.
But whatever the justification, campaigning politicians take a risk when they go after their opponents with guns blazing.
Liberal leader Dalton McGuinty gives a weary thumbs up in response to a heckler
Take Conservative Leader Ernie Eves' assertion, made early in the campaign, that he speaks for Ontarians while Liberal Leader Dalton McGuinty does not. It's a questionable claim, but not unexpected in the context of an election race after all, we don't expect any politician to say, "Vote for me, I am out of touch."
However, when Premier Eves discussed the Tory promise to give property tax credits to senior citizens, he stepped into the danger zone. Eves suggested that, by opposing this idea, McGuinty would prefer to see seniors "forced from their homes." That claim both strained Eves' credibility (no one really believes that McGuinty wants to kick old people out of their houses) and exposed a weakness for the government: if the Tories have been in power for eight years, but they are only proposing to implement this tax relief after they are re-elected, one might wonder if the premier has been content to watch seniors lose their houses for the better part of a decade. The same criticism applies to Eves' suggestion that McGuinty is attacking young families by opposing a Tory plan to allow tax deductions for some mortgage-interest payments.
More notable, however, was the quick revival of the Tories 1999 mantra that McGuinty is simply "not up to the job." These ads were very successful four years ago; indeed, as they went door to door, many candidates found Ontarians repeating this slogan verbatim. Political scientists and sociologists have two possible explanations for that response. It may be that voters are simply sponges, sucking up information they see on television advertising: Coke is "the real thing," Nike allows you to "just do it" and Dalton McGuinty is "just not up to the job." Alternatively, many voters might have already believed that McGuinty was not ready to run the province, and the ads just reinforced that view. But running similar ads this time around is a little riskier: while many voters may still share the sentiment, recycling a four-year-old campaign theme suggests that the Tories have run out of ideas.
It only took a few days for McGuinty to return fire, suggesting that Eves was "unworthy" of leading Ontario. As with the "not up to the job" attack, McGuinty's counteroffensive threatened to blow back on the attacker. Eves had received rave reviews just a couple of weeks earlier for his handling of the power blackout; Ontarians may have many opinions of the premier, but "unworthy" is probably not at the top of the list.
Yet despite the risks of negative campaigns, they are largely successful. The most infamous in recent history remains the "Willie Horton" campaign, which blamed 1988 U.S. presidential candidate Michael Dukakis for the unsupervised release of a convicted murderer who subsequently killed again. The ads were incredibly skillful, erroneous and, in the end, successful. We have yet to go that far, although the New Democrats did run a campaign employing fake news anchors to detail the failings of the Peterson Liberals in the 1990 Ontario race. Those ads were also aggressively negative, and Bob Rae became premier.
NDP leader Howard Hampton used a wedge of Swiss cheese as a prop for an attack on Tory and Liberal energy policies
Political observers don't like negative attacks because they detract from a larger public policy debate. We learn more about the faults of each of the parties and less about the policy options available to us, matters that should really determine how we cast our ballots. The problem is that parties like the negative road. It may turn some citizens off voting, though thus far the link between lower voter turnout and negative campaigns has yet to be established. What we do know is that getting personal and negative crystallizes the vote among party supporters. In other words, it helps make sure your base of support remains solid.
Are we stuck with negative campaigns? As long as they work, yes.
However, when a party takes the low road and meets with failure, other parties will be quick to pick up the message. Part of the onus is on voters, who must demand that parties discuss their platforms instead of the perceived faults of their opponents. When we as voters reward the high road, politicians of all stripes will be quick to find the on-ramp.
Until then, they are likely to keep heeding the advice of Senator Keith Davey, the longtime Liberal strategist. "If the other guy says, 'You're fat,' don't say, 'I'm not,'" Davey recommended. "Say, 'You're ugly.'"