I just read McCain’s Promise, a piece David Foster Wallace wrote for Rolling Stone in 2000 that turned out to be way too long for the magazine.
He spends a three page paragraph noting the different opinions on negative campaigns. The discussion came after McCain’s surprise win the New Hampshire when George W Bush started going negative against McCain, and the McCain campaign was trying to figure out a response. Going negative in turn makes them look hypocritical. Staying positive makes them look weak.
It’s generally accepted that negative campaigns reduce turnout, which is why you don’t have negative ads for fast food: Instead of convincing Burger King customers to go to McDonald’s, it convinces people to stay home. In other fields, rising tides lift all boats, but in politics, all that matters is beating the other guy. That’s good for the establishment candidates, since the people who show up are more likely to support them. It’s bad news for anyone depending on the support of individuals who don’t usually vote.
Anyway, I like Wallace’s comment about the implications for the people who stay home.
Let’s pause for this moment for a quick Rolling Stone PSA. Assuming you’re demographically a Young Voter, it is again worth a moment of your valuable time to consider the implications of the tech’s last couple points. If you are bored and disgusted by politics and don’t bother to vote, you are in effect voting for the entrenched establishments of the two major parties, who please rest assured are not dumb, and who are keenly aware that it is in their interests to keep you disgusted and bored and cynical and to give you every possible psychological reason to stay at home doing one-hitters and watching MTV on primary day. By all means stay home if you want, but don’t bullshit yourself that you’re not voting. In reality, there is no such thing as not voting: you either vote by voting, or you vote by staying home and tacitly doubling the value of some Diehard’s Vote.