A recent Republican primary for the Florida state Senate race in a Republican district offered the perfect storm for why people get so frustrated with political campaigns — including local ones. But it was also revealing about who we are and why such yuck campaigns are a constant in a close race.
There were five candidates, four of which were already office-holders and had good reputations in the community. It was a very strong field. Among the favorites in the conservative district, there were really only marginal position differences when looked at from the view of the broad electorate.
Because my family and I are what is known as “super voters” — we vote in all elections — we are targeted with the most mailers. The curse of the responsible citizen. We got up to 12 mailers in a day, with the majority being from this one race. The majority of those were negative. Flipping through on any given day, conservative Candidate A was variously a gray-pictured corrupt mugger of the public trust or a colorfully pictured, trusted family man and veteran. Candidate B was variously a gray-pictured opposer of freedoms who was going to take all our guns away or a colorfully pictured watchdog protecting your rights. Etc. Day after day after day.
The reason? Get ready
But here’s the rub. This is what free speech looks like. It’s glorious and soaring and it’s messy and disagreeable and some people have a bigger megaphone than others. It is the opposite of college campuses with their speech codes and safe zones — a terrifying look at our future. It is true freedom and that is rare in the world. If your first thought reading this is “We should outlaw or ban or restrict XYZ,” you are saying you want to reduce our freedoms. That is not a good impulse.
Always err on the side of freedom. Giving it away is easy. Getting it back is a mountain.
Further, the reason for the unrelenting negativity in campaigning is that it works. And that’s completely on the collective person in the mirror. The electorate — which is not always the other person — can be so relatively uninformed, that perceptions are easy to shape through these simple mailers. It’s why yard signs with just a candidate’s name are so ubiquitous during elections season. Name recognition alone translates to votes. That also is on the collective person in the mirror.
So, the formula is to tear down the main threat to your election through negative ads, send out mom and apple pie pieties about yourself and plant hundreds of yard signs. It’s superficial, it’s tried and it truly works.
So remember next time you get into a gripe fest over negative campaigning; they are done because they work. They can be nauseating and effective. But we allow them as an option because we cherish freedom over government-enforced niceties and agreement. Attempts to clean up negative campaigning through restricting money or any types of speech must result in curtailing some of those freedoms.
Let freedom reign, including its ugliness. It is the best option.
(NOTE: I chose ads from the Obama-Romney campaign because neither are running this year and both are demonstrably more decent individuals than this year’s options. Yet both suffered withering negative attacks for the reasons stated above.)
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