We need to clarify what’s meant by the term “going negative.”
People complain every election cycle that politics is “too negative,” but the individual voter’s view of what constitutes negative campaigning depends largely on whether their preferred candidate is the mud slinger or the target.
Using the “reasonable man” theory — meaning an objective observer who could change out the names (and parties) of the candidates and draw the same rational conclusion about the content of their political criticisms—voters should demand that every candidate from either party stick to the facts in their attacks.
Just over ten years ago, The Conservative Wahoo wrote probably the best commentary on “going negative” that I’ve ever read. He called for a simple update of the term:
“My definition would go something like this: ‘Going negative, or negative advertising, is the act of lying about an opponent’s record, history, or accomplishments.’ That’s all. The key component of the definition is that it has to be a lie.”— The Conservative Wahoo, Feb. 2012
Pointing out an opponent’s voting record or accurately citing their political beliefs “is not negative,” Wahoo wrote. “This is the act of ensuring that voters are familiar with a candidate in a holistic way, not just the wonderful stuff that a campaign spin machine can churn out.”
While an absolutist could argue that anything that isn’t happy policy proposals and cute family photos is “negative,” a reasonable person has to admit that criticizing bad ideas is an essential part of evaluating, and eventually choosing, the best candidate for the job.
It has to be noted that political engagement spikes when candidates attack each other. It’s simply more interesting to watch. Imagine two candidates in a debate agreeing on every issue, complimenting each other’s fancy suits, failing to draw distinctions between policy positions, and steering clear of any criticism of each other’s voting record.
To win a debate, you need better ideas than the other guy, but that requires not only pitching good policies but criticizing bad ones.
The Rule Golden Rule of Political Discourse
Criticize ideas, not people can be easier said than done.
What a person believes is a reflection of their character, after all. If you adamantly oppose abortion, it can be difficult to separate the pro-abortionist’s belief from their character, judgment, and ethics.
But criticizing an idea or belief is itself not “negative,” nor is it negative to call the person unprincipled for believing — or voting — for it. Which is why the truth of the allegation is essential.
If candidate A touts their Conservative credentials while voting for bills that are not Conservative, there’s a fine line between calling that position unprincipled and criticizing the candidate personally because of that idea.
That’s why facts should be the deciding factor.
Cases in Point
The Republican frontrunner in the GOP gubernatorial race, Mark Ronchetti, has been accused of “going negative” for highlighting his biggest opponent’s votes in the legislature to cut stimulus checks and issue professional licenses to illegal immigrants.
Rebecca Dow, on the other hand, has attacked Ronchetti for being a “never Trumper” and a George Soros-funded “climate change activist.” Jay Block went after Ronchetti during the May 20 KOATNews debate for hiring a particular campaign consultant. And candidate Ethal Maharg criticized all three for “acting like three year olds.”
Ronchetti Gets Personal?
Ronchetti’s campaign recently aired a TV ad criticizing Dow as being untrustworthy because of her handling of a child molestation case at her daycare.
Alejandro Hernandez was hired to work at Dow’s daycare despite a questionable application, was reprimanded for asking a teenaged girl about her sex life, and two months later was put in charge of “lockdown sleepover” where he molested a boy. That boy’s parents sued.
The perpetrator went to prison for six years, and Dow settled a lawsuit from the victim’s parents for $260,000. These are facts, and whether or not they’re relevant to Dow’s potential effectiveness as governor, a reasonable person would see the value of having that information before casting a ballot in the primary election.
There had been murmurs online for months about this case and the potential damage it could cause to Dow’s campaign. Ronchetti capitalized on it, and while Dow supporters are livid, most voters would rather have this information now than see it revealed in an October Surprise from the Democrat incumbent.
It’s a brutal attack that very well may put the final nail in the coffin of Dow’s gubernatorial campaign.
By definition, it is “negative,” but it’s not false. And more importantly, it’s not irrelevant. If a Democrat were to air this information, they would do so on the basis that voters deserve to know. Because they do.
Dow’s ‘Never Trumper’ Attack
Rebecca Dow has aired weeks of television ads and sent mailers to voters accusing Ronchetti of being a “never Trumper.”
Ronchetti is on video stating that he is a Christian Conservative who “left the Republican Party” over “the orange one.” These statements are verifiable facts. Regardless of whether or not it was a joke, as Ronchetti claimed (and the video seems to back up, given his chuckling and the audience’s laughter), the statements themselves are true.
But Dow’s claims that Ronchetti called Trump “the stupidest man who’s ever lived,” of accusing Trump of committing a felony, and calling for his impeachment — these are also verifiable, and they were embarrassingly false.
It’s true Ronchetti spoke at a climate change event sponsored in part by a group with ties to George Soros, and based on the news coverage of the event, Ronchetti appears to believe the climate is indeed changing. But that’s not quite “work(ing) with climate change activists funded by George Soros,” as Dow’s ad suggests.
The quotes were used in a mailer to voters making the case that Ronchetti is insufficiently MAGA (an odd tactic in a blue state that voted for Biden in 2020 by a ten-point margin). Beyond the strategic folly of thinking “never Trumper” is a moniker that would hurt a gubernatorial candidate in New Mexico, the allegation of Ronchetti being a “never Trumper” is a subjective judgment that is not backed up by the source material used in the attack.
For weeks Dow has been running an already debunked ad accusing Ronchetti of being a Soros-funded climate change activist. (Actual climate change activists must be livid being associated with someone who’s calling for the deregulation of the oil and gas industry.) Both of these lines of attack speak to Ronchetti being insufficiently MAGA, which may or may not be true (depending on your personal gauge of where a Republican should align). But if they’re false, you lose some level of credibility.
Quid Pro Quo Block
Block attacked Ronchetti for his choice of a campaign consultant, arguing that Jay McCleskey is corrupt. But Block himself admitted to calling McCleskey. (As we wrote after the debate, Block was for McCleskey before he was against him.)
Block took to Facebook Live to defend his calls to McCleskey, claiming he could “smell the corruption” through the phone, and at that point decided against hiring McCleskey. But the timeline doesn’t add up. Ronchetti was weeks away from announcing his own candidacy, so it’s not unreasonable to assume McCleskey was already on the clock for Ronchetti when he took Block’s call.
McCleskey is arguably the best campaign strategist in New Mexico, which is why Block called him in the first place. But importantly, McCleskey’s reputation had to already be well known — and well reported — when Block made the call.
So Block isn’t necessarily wrong. A reasonable person could see McCleskey’s “scorched earth” campaign tactics, past defamation settlement, and grand jury probe (no charges were filed) as indicators of a less-than-ethical campaign style. But it’s insider baseball — most people don’t care about who the candidate hires onto their campaign. More importantly, it’s hypocritical, and it’s that hypocrisy that takes the wind out of Block’s sail when he attacks Ronchetti for being “unethical” because Ronchetti got to McCleskey before Block did.
Most voters themselves are hypocritical about the issue of negative campaigning. We generally dismiss attacks on our preferred candidate while justifying attacks from our preferred candidate when it’s directed at our guy’s opponent.
All over social media — a great place to gauge voter sentiment — advocates of Rebecca Dow are quick to accuse Ronchetti of “slanderous lies” while ignoring Dow’s own attacks, even in the face of evidence proving them to be demonstrably false.
In the general election, Republicans will likely shift their allegiance from their preferred primary candidate to whoever eventually wins the nomination, because a less-than-ideal Republican is preferable to the incumbent Democrat.
What I’m advocating is a greater level of rationality. The ends should not justify the means if the means are false and the ends are purely partisan — regardless of political affiliation.
Dow and Block should no more get away with attacking Ronchetti with false claims than Ronchetti should get away with attacking incumbent Democrat Michelle Lujan Grisham if the line of attack is based on falsehoods.
Negative campaigning is essential in distinguishing good ideas from bad. But lying should never be defended just because your preferred candidate is doing it.
Stick to the facts, criticize ideas not people, and if a conclusion of character must be drawn, base it on facts.
That’s how you elevate the conversation and ensure that the best ideas win.
Categories: 2022 Governor's Race