You can do something about those negative ads. Really. You can. Unfortunately, what you can do will take a long time to get done. And when you’re done doing it the negative ad problem won’t be fixed entirely, just mostly. But you can do it.
First some background: Why do we have negative ads?
Because in the U.S. our elections are primarily binary; that is you usually have two and only two real choices, the Republican and the Democrat. When making a choice between the Republican and the Democrat, you, the voter, can use one of two motivation systems: You can vote for the candidate you like or you can vote against the candidate you don’t like. Therein lies our problem.
Campaign professionals have learned that far and away the most effective way to win elections is to teach the electorate to vote against the other guy. Not for you. Against them.
And how do we teach the electorate what a bad choice you’d make if you voted for the other guys? Negative ads, that’s how.
Appeals to decency haven’t worked
Lots of people – me included – have lamented negative ads for years. We appeal to the decency and honesty and integrity of candidates and campaign managers. That hasn’t been working, though. Campaigns keep getting more and more negative. Some people – I’m not included in this bunch – say that candidates must stop using negative ads or we’ll vote against them. I don’t say that because it simply isn’t true.
Here’s what is true: If you’re running for office in a large area that is electorally competitive (e.g. the State of Minnesota) and you or someone on your behalf doesn’t somehow publicize negative information about your opponent, you’re going to get beaten. It’s that simple.
Everyone says they don’t like negative ads – and no one does like them – but it’s the way we do elections now. And, by the way, it’s not just the ads. Negative information gets disseminated by bloggers and email and YouTube as well.
A simple idea
How can we begin to change this negative pall hanging over our politics and elections?
One thing we can do is to support and enact something called Ranked Choice Voting. Some people call it Instant Runoff Voting. Whatever you want to call it (I’ll use RCV), it’s a simple idea based on the belief that those elected to office can serve best if they are supported by a majority of those who voted in their election.
Wait a minute, you might say. Don’t all of our elected officials receive the support of a majority of the electorate? Well, no, actually. The last time Minnesota had a governor elected by a majority of the people was in 1994. In 1998 we elected a governor (Jesse Ventura) who had only 37 percent of the people voting for him. (See, we weren’t as wild and crazy in Minnesota as people around the country said we were; just a little more than a third of us were wild and crazy.) It’s pretty clear that we’re going to elect a governor this year without a majority of the people supporting him.
Ventura, by the way, was the harbinger of the future in Minnesota politics because he emboldened the Independence Party (and independents in general) to think about actually winning elections instead of just registering a protest. Most Independence candidates lack Ventura’s celebrity, but they now can be counted on to be in every major race and often to garner a significant portion of the vote. Significant Independence party votes guarantee we won’t have a majority supporting the Republican or Democratic candidates.
If we had Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) we could have an election where our governor would receive majority support. We don’t, of course, but if we did, here’s how it would work:
If no majority, a redistribution occurs
Assume you gave your first choice in this November’s gubernatorial election to Independence candidate Tom Horner, and your second choice to Republican Tom Emmer. All the first-choice votes get counted, and it turns out that Democrat Mark Dayton has 36 percent of the first-choice votes, Emmer has 34 percent, and Horner 30 percent. Since no one has a majority, the person with the lowest count (Horner) gets dropped and his second-choice votes are redistributed between Dayton and Emmer. Many people who made Horner their first choice are like you: They said that, if Tom Horner wasn’t going to win, they wanted Tom Emmer to win. Emmer gets considerably more of Horner’s second-choice votes than Dayton does. Emmer wins the election, even though Dayton was ahead after the opening round of counting was completed.
Or, it could be the reverse, with Dayton emerging as the preference of the majority after Horner’s votes are redistributed. Or, it could also be that Horner places first and Emmer’s or Dayton’s votes are redistributed and Horner emerges as the winner.
In this tight race, we just don’t know who the choice of the majority would be. And that’s the point. We need a system that can tell us whom a majority of voters prefer.
“So,” you ask, “how does this Ranked Choice Voting system cut down on negative ads?”
Campaign strategies would change
It does it by fundamentally changing the strategy used to win an election. Currently you win by exciting your base and teaching the rest of the electorate to vote against the other guy. Under RCV you win by amassing a majority of the electorate’s support. Negative ads are no longer used without consequence: If you’re too negative, you could easily turn off the other candidates’ supporters. They won’t give you their second-choice votes and you lose the election.
I’m not trying to suggest that RCV will immediately and overwhelmingly make our politics better. But I can tell you, as someone who’s talked a lot of campaign strategy with a lot of campaign managers and candidates, there is a profound strategic difference between the current basic question every campaign begins with – “How do we get more votes than our opponents?” – and the question you have to ask in an RCV system, “How do we get the support of the majority of the people?”
Today’s campaigns are conceptually simple: Get your base supporters to the polls to vote for you, and then persuade everyone else to vote against your opponent. Under RCV candidates would need to not only get their base supporters to vote for them but to persuade their opponents’ supporters to vote for them too, to give them their second choice. Suddenly it’s not quite as smart to go hard negative.
Passing RCV isn’t going to be easy. Lots of hard-core political activists don’t like the idea. They’ve attained their stature in the “vote against” era, and anything else sounds naïve to them. Besides, who likes to change?
Can the public figure it out?
Some activists argue that the public is way too dumb to figure out an RCV system. Ranking choices requires nuanced thinking skills, and, they say, that’s something the public just doesn’t have.
I disagree. The public hasn’t had much chance to exercise nuanced judgment under the current system. With RCV they might develop an ability to do that.
I’ve been involved in Minnesota politics for 50 years. It’s never been as negative as it is now. Today trackers follow candidates everywhere. Every day. At every appearance, no matter how small. What are they doing? Shooting video of every word, hoping they can catch the candidate saying something stupid or – even better – picking his nose or scratching his fanny. Campaigns used to be dialogues where competing approaches to the state’s problems were discussed. Now campaigns spend most of their time and energy finding and publicizing negative information about the opponent.
We can go back to campaigns that are at least partially about the issues with Ranked Choice Voting. RCV is being tried in cities now, and proving to be very successful. But it takes time to make big changes.
We’ve got to do something about the rampant negativity in our current political discourse, though. If we don’t, our ability to have a civil civic dialogue about what’s important in our society will continue to be destroyed.
Wy Spano is the director of the Masters in Advocacy and Political Leadership (MAPL) Program at the University of Minnesota Duluth.