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Sleaze Sells: The Economics of Political Campaigns

By: Walt Milam

“What my opponent has clearly indicated in the past weeks is his interest in sending American jobs overseas and a loyalty to the outsourcing companies funding his campaign.”

The quote above is taken from a recent debate in a Virginia election and represents the negative, and frankly, accusatory campaigns that occur leading up to many political elections. Despite frequent criticism for negative campaigning which does not promote one’s own ideas but attacks opponent(s) and/ or his ideas, the practice persists among politicians.

Though policy issues interest and influences voters greatly, politicians manage to avoid actually articulating their reasons for supporting a policy. Rarely does one hear a politician explain the mechanism by which less or more taxes will stimulate jobs or balance the budget. Instead they use an array of moralistic claims, ad-hominem attacks and other fallacy filled strategies to persuade voters to vote for them on Election Day.

This phenomenon seems perplexing at first glance but analysis of political campaigning indicates why such campaigns are used.

Politicians are like firms offering a product; the platform they wish to support once elected. Potential voters are consumers who will vote for (or purchase) the candidate whose platform most meets the consumers’ preferences. A firm can only be successful if elected, meaning they receive more votes than any other candidate. Thus, the candidate’s incentive is to campaign in the way most likely to win him more votes and his opponent(s) less. Politicians thus allocate their time, arguments, and funding toward a strategy that they believe will allow them to receive the most votes.

This means that despite what they say, most voters do not demand careful articulation of complete arguments that explain the mechanisms through which politicians’ stances will improve society. They apparently prefer the candidate who can most loudly and proudly pound his ideas into voters head while making his opponent’s claim seem crazier than a late 80s Kiss concert.

Despite the potential criticism accompanying negative campaign ads, politicians continue to use such campaigns because they believe the person who best presents morally based claims and whoever best attacks his opponent will win.

The current political tradition of supplying negative moralistic campaigning can be changed only from a change in voter tastes. Voters must indicate a preference for politicians who provide superior arguments rather than claiming to hold simply superior morals. This must manifest prior to Election Day as all races will have a winner and often times both candidates will have implemented similar types of negative campaigning. Voters must make their preferences known perhaps by allocating resources to supporting candidates who they believe provide arguments rather than fallacies. Without this change, politicians have no incentive to change their current practices.


  1. Joseph Wilkinson says:

    That is a very interesting way to look at the problem of negative campaign ads. I’ve also noticed that more companies incorporate this technique as well. Recently, I have seen many commercials in which a product is not described as much as competing products are bashed. My question is why companies that do this better than others appeal to customers.

  2. Andrew Bauer says:

    I agree with this post whole heartedly and I feel as though the change lies with the constituents. If we honestly look at the problem it’s fairly obvious that voters respond better, in polls and the voting booth, to a negative campaign. The worst part is the fact that people complain about this very common problem after elections, when the results of the voters supports negative, dirty campaign tactics. Voters either need to address the problem or stop fussing about the results that come directly from their decisions. If the voters were to react negatively to these low tactics then a true change would be made. Campaign reform has become a more exposed issue over recent years due to its questionable methods, whether it concerns unfair funding or an overall nasty campaign operation. With this in mind, it seems as though our government is doing all of the leg work while the people of our country allow candidates that run a dirty campaign to win significant elections.

  3. Michael Dieffenbach says:

    I believe that this is a very true post. Voters sadly look for the politician who can blab the most about the other guy or some crap that the people want to hear. I believe that this is a problem with the American society. I believe that this is actually very similar to the way Americans look at shopping. A majority of Americans want to get the cheapest price that they can when it comes to buying a product. Then after they buy the cheap product they complain about how poor the quality is. They will also complain about sending jobs overseas, when it is their fault because the high demand for cheap goods cannot be met within the American society. This is the same thing that Americas do when it comes to politics. They vote for a person and then once that person is in office, the people complain about the politician. I think that is just the American way of life.

  4. Dylan DelliSanti says:

    I’d have to agree with this post. In 1964, Barry Goldwater ran a very principled campaign for the presidency and reminded Americans that, “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” His opponent Lyndon B. Johnson responded with attacks like “In your guts, you know he’s nuts” and the infamous “Daisy” commercial which depicts an image of a little girl followed by a nuclear explosion and a mushroom cloud. LBJ won the election with over 60% of the popular vote. As much as we complain about negative ads, they work very well in capturing votes.

  5. Vinny O'Rourke says:

    I have to admit I like the negative election campaigns. They are interesting. Politicans become celebrities. It’s a points game and who at the end of the day gets the most hits at his opponet wins.
    Sure, in an ideal world it would be great to have campaigns built on actual policies and not just petty arguments. However, that is boring and just as Dylan pointed out above, the truth, is not what voters want to hear.
    This is the same principle behind most products, price over quality. We will pick the cheaper product because we think it’s essentially the same but once we buy it we notice the difference. And by then it is too late. The same principle applies to politics!

  6. Jay Strosnider says:

    While this article bashes on negative campaigning and the politicians who participate in it, it also bashes the general public for being the cause of the current political tradition. The problem is highlighted as the voter’s fault for showing that dirty play works.
    Voters say they want to hear the facts but still respond to negative campaigning. I’m not sure campaigns built on actual policies could be described as boring as stated by Vinny. But perhaps its just that bad-mouthing is more remember-able than an entire policy.
    All in all, i think that it will take a major change in the public’s reaction to negative campaigning for politicians to change their tactics because there is no reason.

  7. John William Morris says:

    This post supports the idea that most people remember the bad traits of someone rather than the good traits simply because the bad traits more often stick out in someones memory. Even though I dont like this way of campaigning, canidates practice this method because it has been shown to work in the past. This negative campiagning also works because it gives people a reason not to vote for a candidate and then vote for the other when positive campaigning only gives people a reason to vote for one but no reason to not vote for the other. Negative campaigning has worked in the past so from a candidates point of view its necessary to practice this method to win the votes. I dont like this method because then people vote for candidates based on their morals rather than who will enforce the better policies and knows how to lead and make good decisions.

  8. Patrick Strecker says:

    I agree with this post from just watching political ads over the past decade. Clearly voters seem to gain more interest in negative ads because of the information that can slander and denounce the other members running in the election. I can even say I loved to hear what he/she had done wrong or how bad it is that he/she doesn’t support pro-life. Without these curveballs in political campaigns the average voter won’t obtain the information about both parites.

  9. Colin Dunlap says:

    I agree that politicians are getting wrapped up in just making their opponents look bad, and quite honestly I think it is irritating. During the months prior to election I get so sick and tired of hearing the Democrats candidate bashing the Republican candidate and vice versa. After a while of listening to it, you don’t know who to believe. I believe that political candidates need to stick to campaigning for themselves as opposed to campaigning against their opponent. Before I vote for someone I want to know their policies and their take on certain subjects rather than what their opponent did 10 years ago that made everyone mad. Negative campaigning is so annoying to hear over and over again, so they need to freshen things up and start talking about what they are going to do to try to help us.

  10. Corey Meyer says:

    I agree with this post after paying more and more attention to ad campaigns over the years as I have grown closer to the voting age and even more when I passed it. It is easier to see an negative campaign ad and say yea he’s right, as i believe it is easier to make one. When potentially voting for someone, I personally need to know how good his or her policy is and why, not why he or she thinks the opponent’s policy is flawed. If people don’t do that, then they can never truly know what they are voting for outside of he doesn’t like that policy.

  11. Austin H says:

    I think this is an interesting way of looking at political campaigns. I agree with some points and I believe the past Presidential election of 2008 serves as an excellent example for candidates avoiding the minute details of their platforms. Obama’s campaign, for example, kept pushing the need for universal healthcare, but never fully discussed terms of the bill that was just recently passed. The bill that did eventually passed has turned out to be an outrage and has been criticized from everywhere from ludicrous to unconstitutional. I think that a change is needed in political campaigns to more present candidates’ platforms, rather than showing how the opponent isn’t fit for the job. However, I think there is too much time and money spent on the current way of campaigning to change anything.

  12. Josh Shelton says:

    This becomes a case where the voter must put his vote to where his rhetoric is. If he is concerned about the negative ads enough he should change his voting patterns or abstain, but each voter believes that even with the negative campaining he still has an incentive to vote for the person who ran them, thereby indicating he values something else over his apprehensions regarding negative campaigning.

  13. Worth Osgood says:

    I like your thoughts that politicians are like firms offering a product, themselves. And that is truly the reality of politics these days; politicians must absolutely be able to sell themselves to the voters in order to be elected to the position they are running for. You’re also right about how voters do not demand carefully articulated arguments over the matter(s) at hand, they only demand that politicians meet their individual needs.

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