You hear about it all the time during election season campaigns "going negative." Critics and government reformers moan about the attacks. Insiders, who claim to have known about the allegations "for years," love them. And voters pay attention to them, even though most of what people call "negative" really isn't, while some of the things that are negative slip under the radar.
Why do candidates go negative? Not just because it works and, if done well, it does but because it sets up a fundamental contrast. It's impossible for voters to determine which candidate is better suited for an office if all they ever hear is that the person likes jobs, good schools and a chicken in every pot.
Yet every candidate can't be qualified, and every plan can't actually work. Voters don't have enough time to sort through all the competing proposals and compare them against the facts and a candidate's record. The media is supposed to do some of this for voters, but they usually don't because they are just as obsessed with insider baseball and the horse race as other insiders. Besides, they just don't have enough staff to do it right these days; blogs are filling some of the void, but they can be hit-or-miss. So, it is up to candidates to help voters figure out the differences.
Is it negative to question candidates' qualifications, assertions they have made, or their record? Of course not, even if many believe such an ad would be inherently critical.
There is a difference between what campaigns call a "comparative" and a truly negative ad. If an ad factually addresses an opponent's record and makes a contrast to the candidate's own record or agenda, that's all fair. But if it attacks an opponent's character or his truthfulness, it is pretty negative. (A great example is the "jailhouse" ad Rick Santorum ran against Bob Casey in which actors portrayed some of Casey's donors behind bars.)
Questioning an opponent's record is something that has to be done; it's an effective tool in a campaign's arsenal. Such attacks work because it's human nature to discount the good things you hear about someone and believe the bad whether the message is delivered at a gossipy sewing circle or blasted over the airwaves. So when and why do candidates go on the attack against their rivals, and how do they do it? Candidates need to tear someone else down when there is no clear path to victory otherwise. Some campaigns do it early, before opponents can build a base; others do it later, in the final stages of a campaign, when they need to push their opponent down a little further.
All of which leads to one question: Who should go negative in the mayoral race?
Since Chaka Fattah is in front and seems to be wedged there until someone removes him, foes need to take him on more directly. Some will call that negative, but it's just being more aggressive and direct. That said, I doubt that anyone will go negative on him on the airwaves anytime soon.
However, Tom Knox should definitely go negative on Bob Brady and he should do it soon. Brady is up on air and will begin to eat into Knox's support if he keeps airing ads. Knox has the money to run positive ads about himself and negative ads about Brady, keeping him from gaining any real traction, while Brady does not have the money to respond in kind. I doubt that Knox will do it, though. It would be hard to argue he stood for something new if he was practicing "old style" slash-and-burn politics.