Challenging An Incumbent? Go Negative, or Lose.

"Going negative" is a much maligned yet oft-used strategy in campaigns. While many voters claim to hate negative campaigning, their votes indicate otherwise. Voters may be uncomfortable with an overwhelmingly negative election season, but polling repeatedly shows they respond to negative ads by voting against the target of the ad. 

So why should challenge candidates specifically nearly always go negative? Here's an example from Campaigns & Elections: Contemporary Case Studies (Faucheux 1999):

In 1998, Matt Fong challenged incumbent Senator Barbara Boxer (D-Calif) for the U.S. Senate. Boxer was unpopular going into the race - but Fong chose to run a mostly positive campaign. "[The Boxer campaign] wanted to make the campaign a choice [between two candidates], not a referendum [on Boxer's performance]; that is, it wanted to shift the focus from Boer herself and define the race as a choice between the two candidates…on each [of three defining issues] Boxer portrayed Fong as an extremist and herself as sensible."

Fong chose not to define Boxer, he let her define herself while he tried to define himself. While voters weren't happy with Boxer, Fong didn't emphasize why they should be unhappy with her by pointing out the areas she had failed. 

From Faucheux, "being [an] unpopular [candidate] does not mean certain defeat. The key for an unpopular incumbent is to keep the campaign from becoming a referendum on his or her performance. Instead, it should be framed as a choice between two rivals."

The lesson: don't play into an incumbent's hand by allowing them to frame the election as a choice between two candidates - because they will more than likely have more money to define that choice - make it a referendum on their performance. 

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