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Opinion | Negative ads work — and they always have

These political gurus of today know that finding a boogeyman to run against remains true.

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Over the years many of you have lamented to me and said, “I am so tired of seeing all negative ads with candidates lambasting each other in political campaigns. Why don’t candidates say what they are going to do when they are elected, rather than bashing their opponent mercilessly?” People also suggest that campaigns are more negative today than in bygone years. Allow me to answer the question in the reverse order.  

Criticizing and slandering your opponent is not new. It was actually more vicious and incendiary in earlier American political life, and much more personal. First of all, there were no television cameras or hidden studios where third party political ad gurus brewed disingenuous ads. Folks in the old days would have to meet their opponents face-to-face at political forums, rallies, and debates. They would trade barbs and insults right in the face of each other. In early American political history, there were instances of fisticuffs and even a duel where opponents were shot. Nothing was off limits, not even peoples’ wives and children. What they did to Andrew Jackson’s wife Rachel was so bad that it eventually caused the poor lady to withdraw and die from depression.

At least today, it seems inappropriate and out of bounds to attack peoples’ family members. Also, in the old days it seemed you could say things about your opponent without there being any semblance of truth to the accusations.  Today there are laws requiring that any attack on the opposition must have a semblance or scintilla of truth. Therefore, it was worse in past decades than today, if you can believe that.

To the main point asked, why do these campaign media gurus use negative ads. It is a simple answer, they work. If they did not work, they would not use them. Polling reveals that negative ads change the trajectory and standing of candidates dramatically and instantaneously. There is a direct correlation to a candidate’s polling numbers before and after being hit by a negative ad. Much more so than a soft, pretty ad advocating that you vote for someone because they are a competent person that would be the ideal elected public servant. These gurus know this fact because today’s polling is very accurate, and they can read the polls and they react, and design ads based on polling.

In Alabama political history the most brilliant and unquestionably accomplished politician was one, George C. Wallace. In Wallace’s early years of “politiken” for his first terms as governor, polling was in its infancy and was not as scientifically accurate. However, George Wallace was born to be a political genius and a political animal. He had a God given ability to remember names and he knew what people wanted to hear. He inherently could read the political tea leaves.  He did not need polling.

I would visit often with Wallace in his last term. I was a freshman legislator and actually represented his home county of Barbour. He would call me down from the House floor to visit with him in the Governor’s office. He would reminisce about past political forays and governor’s races. He would tell me a lot of inside stories that I will probably never share. However, allow me to share this sage political admonition he imparted to me one day.  

He looked me squarely in the eyes and told me that more people vote against someone than for someone. He further elaborated, “you have got to find a boogeyman to run against.” He lived and breathed this belief and strategy. He ran on the race issue and segregation for decades. He rode that horse as long as he could. However, when Black Alabamians were given the right to vote in 1965 and soon after constituted 25 percent of the Democratic Primary electorate, Wallace instantly changed his stripes and went down Dexter Avenue to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s church and had a conversion experience and begged forgiveness for exploiting the race issue. The Black voters forgave Wallace and elected him governor that last term in 1982. I never said Wallace was a statesman. He was a true, natural politician, and, yes, a demagogue. Whatever it took to get elected was Wallace’s modus operandi.

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These political gurus of today know the George Wallace adage of finding a boogeyman to run against remains true. In this upcoming election year, that is why you will see countless negative ads on television, because they work.

See you next week.

Steve Flowers is Alabama’s leading political columnist. His weekly column appears in over 60 Alabama newspapers. He served 16 years in the state legislature. Steve may be reached at

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