Negative Campaigns:Is it in their nature or is the system to blame?

October 21, 2008

Further thoughts on the recent Federal election. One of the reasons people are so apathetic and upset about elections and politicians is the negative tone that is so prevalent. It seems that one of the primary strategies for winning an election is character assassination. If one of your opponents has a perceived weakness then attack that weakness and forget about talking about policy or issues. A good example this past election was Liberal leader Stephane Dion. He had a perceived leadership weakness, which even he now admits. It doesn’t matter if it was true or not, the appearance was there that he was soft, elite, not decisive, not a great communicator. The Conservatives and the NDP went after that. They talked about policy as well, but you could argue they got a lot of mileage out of tearing down Dion. Just look at how much time Jack Layton spent attacking Dion in the debates. Whether Mr. Harper or Mr. Layton were doing it, it hurt Dion and in the end helped the Conservatives form another government.

Is there any way out of this? Isn’t this just because politicians are bad people who have no goodness left in them? Just empty husks of human beings who have sold their souls for power?

Call me an idealist, but I don’t think so. I wouldn’t remove personal responsibility from any choice a political leader makes, but the current electoral system we have provides certain incentives. Politicians are competitive, goal oriented people who optimize their behavior based on the system of incentives that is in place. The fact of the matter is that first-past-the-post voting lets you win government with much less than a majority (in this election, just 38% was needed). So there is no need, no incentive to appeal widely to everyone. The optimal strategy is clearly:

  • mobilize your base
  • try to cause infighting amongst your opponents to encourage vote splitting
  • be vague enough not to scare off all the undecided voters


No one party is to blame here more than another, the system rewards you for negative campaigns that sow doubt based on character. It rewards a strategy of dividing your opponents against themselves. The essence of this strategy is that by dividing your opponents and unifying your side you ensure that many more votes on the other side won’t count. Thats because in our system the winner wins and the losing votes are thrown away. So, under this strategy, the Conservatives don’t need care if the Liberal voter they are convincing votes NDP or Green or Conservative.  Regardless who they vote for, their vote will likely not contribute to the make up of parliament or its for you, either way you win, as long as it isn’t a vote for your closest opponent.

So, if we just set the question of the existence of good politicians aside for a moment, we’ll never get a better, more respectful campaign where these strategies aren’t optimal until the system changes.

In a proportional system, even if you attack one leader and shift their votes away, those voters will still be heard. Voters who are torn between two alternatives on the left, for example, will still contribute to the makeup of parliament if there are enough to pass the threshold. And in Canada the Greens and NDP regularly pass this threshold. What’s more, once people know this is how it works they will start new parties or vote for other alternative voices. The only optimal strategy then will be to appeal to the widest population of voters. Furthermore, you couldn’t burn all your bridges with character assassination of your close opponents, because if you want power, you may need to work with them to form government.

So next time you hear someone complaining about negative campaigning and blaming politicians think about how the system motivates their actions. One day we’ll have a better system (like May 12, 2009) Then we can see if politicians rise to the challenge of putting issues and ideas before character and strategy.


3 Responses to “Negative Campaigns:Is it in their nature or is the system to blame?”

  1. Eric Says:

    Great topic. I’m really hopeful about what changes we might see with a new voting system, not just in how we vote but in how we talk to one another and how we govern.

    I think a different electoral system might not only make campaigns more civil but attract more civil candidates. Think of all the bright, capable people out there who might run for office if politics no weren’t so dirty, dishonest, backhanded, etc.. Instead of attracting the power-hungry types who are willing to mislead and smear their way to office, we might actually start getting the people most qualified for office, people who, as you say, “put issues and ideas before character and strategy.”

  2. Eric Says:

    And regarding STV…the other day someone was suggesting STV might be particularly good at discouraging negative campaigning and encouraging honest, issue-based campaigning. The idea was that one candidate would want to appeal to the supporters of a competitor in hopes that those voters would still give him a high ranking on their ballot. So, for example, an NDP candidate would want to avoid making personal attacks on a Green party candidate or risk losing transfer votes from Green party supporters, who might rank an NDP candidate 2nd, or 3rd, etc. And this would seem to work the other way around as well, with Green candidates abstaining from smearing or lying about an NDP candidate.

    Other proportional systems (like party list systems) don’t have the prospect of vote transfers. In those systems a party might figure, we’re not gonna get the votes of their die hard supporters anyway, and there are no vote transfers, so why not attack them? Your point about having to work together in Parliament seems right to me, but the vote transferring of STV seems to add even more incentive for a different kind of politics.

  3. Ratel Says:

    eric, i agree completely, I hadn’t thought of this as a major difference between STV and MMP. People might still be tempted to attack those far away from them on the political spectrum but there woulnd’t even be much point then. You might actually have politicians doing what they really should be doing, appleaing to the entire electorate.

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