As the 2016 presidential election kicks into high gear, the attacks against Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton seem to be intensifying. Everyday we heard things that suggest Donald Trump is a racist and a bigot and is totally unqualified to serve in office. Others say that Hillary Clinton is a liar and a crook and that she’d be in jail if not for her political connections. Although some people might decry this overly negative campaigning, unfortunately it is the way politics has been trending for quite some time.
For example, when I started out in the mid 90s, I was taught by folks on both sides of the aisle that Republicans shouldn’t associate with Democrats and vice versa. Adherents to the other political party were stupid, not to be trusted, and often just plain evil. One should never treat one’s opponent with civility if it can be helped, because they certainly wouldn’t offer you that same level of respect. Unfortunately, this problem has gotten even worse.
Toward these same lines, we’ve had a preview of this year’s horribly negative campaigning before, right here in Virginia in the 2013 race for governor. The Ken Cuccinelli campaign branded Terry McAuliffe as a corrupt businessman who was totally unqualified to serve in any office, let alone governor, while the McAuliffe folks painted Cuccinelli as a right-wing zealot who wished to turn back the clock on the rights of many individuals. Both sides went heavily negative and although there were positive selling points for both men, these topics were generally forgotten as both campaigns tried to portray the other as an absolutely horrible outcome. During the campaign, I spoke with some Cuccinelli staffers who actually declared that their primary goal was to expose McAuliffe in the worst possible light so that by Labor Day most Virginians would consider him completely unelectable. From what I witnessed, I suspect the McAuliffe folks decided to employ a similar strategy of demonization against Cuccinelli. They both framed the campaign as the choice of the lesser of two evils and voters were urged to vote against either McAuliffe or Cuccinelli rather than feeling positive about either. As a result, many of my Republican friends then and now still refer to our governor as Terry McAwful. However, in that ugly morass was a third candidate, Robert Sarvis. Although the powers that be conspired to keep him off the debate stage, he still managed to capture 6.5% of the vote from Libertarians and those who were sick of the race to the bottom campaigns of both the Republicans and Democrats.
And here we are again in 2016. We have a Republican and a Democratic candidate who both suffer from exceedingly high negatives. Unfortunately, many polls indicate that the average American views Trump and Clinton in an unfavorable light. Odds are, if the Republicans or Democrats nominated a candidate that was at least halfway likable, he or she would be enjoying a huge lead over his or her primary opponent. The problem is that negative campaigning does work…at least to a point, provided that there are no other candidates in the race. In November many Republicans and conservatives will hold their noses and vote for a deplorable man like Donald Trump if they are convinced that they have no other choices and that he is the only way they can stop their greater foe, Hillary. Likewise, many progressives and Greens despise Hillary Clinton for being corrupt and loath the revelation that Debbie Wasserman-Schultz and the Democratic National Committee rigged the primaries against Bernie Sanders. However, if the don’t support Clinton how else can they stop a thug like Trump?
Well, fortunately voters do have other options as there are two (or possibly three) other candidates who could garner enough electoral votes to win the election. They are: Gary Johnson of the Libertarian Party, Dr. Jill Stein of the Green Party, and potentially Darrell Castle of the Constitution Party (although working toward it, he has not reached the ballot access threshold yet).
I remain fully convinced that if the United States were like every other democratic nation, which offers voters a variety of choices and not simply only two (or often one) candidates, this era of increasingly negative campaigning would be drastically curtailed. After all, if two candidates or their campaigns decide to make it their primary mission to prove that the other is wholly unsuitable for office, then voters could choose a third option and reject the campaign of fear and hatred that both of his or her opponents offer. If a third party candidate could win a major election from time to time, campaigns would soon come to the realization that they would actually have to sell their own candidates and promote their own supposed principles, rather than presenting themselves as the better of two horrible options. Maybe then we could get candidates that we actually like, ones that can be trusted to uphold some kind of values, and perhaps party platforms would be more than lofty ideals that are often ignored or even repudiated by their own candidates. Now, wouldn’t that be something!?