All campaigns need to appeal to the voter. There are a lot of dichotomies at play. For example you can ask voters to vote for something or ask them to vote against someone or something. You can articulate a message of what is possible, or a message of what is broken. None of these dichotomies are inherently negative or positive, and most campaigns find some balance between the two.
However, there is one fundamental type of difference that does separate a “negative” campaign from a “positive one” – whether you are appealing to voters on the basis of hope, or the basis of fear. This ties directly to human emotion instead of policy.
Consider the viral campaign video of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez:
In this video, Ocasio-Cortez embraces the neutral dichotomies: she gives voters a clear picture of what they are voting for as well as what they are voting against, when they cast their vote for her. And she articulates her message of what the future could be as well as contrast it with what is so badly broken now. But what she doesn’t do is scare her audience. She only speaks the language of hope. She asks for voters to have courage to do the possible:
It’s time to fight for a New York that working families can afford.
This is about people vs money. We’ve got people, they’ve got money.
We can do it now. It doesn’t take 100 years to do this. It takes political courage.
A New York for the many is possible. It’s time for one of us.
Now, compare that to the GOP message to its voters for the 2018 midterms:
“Those other things — health care, education — none of that matters unless you’re safe,” Walker said at a campaign stop last week, according to a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel report headlined, “Scott Walker says Democrats would make Wisconsin more dangerous.”
There was no ambiguity or subtlety. If Democrats win, you and your family are in danger. Democrats want to let violent criminals back onto the street, Walker claimed. It sounded like anodyne Wisconsin (15th lowest crime rate out of 50, for the record) would be plagued by anarchy or mass murder or both.
A positive political message is a commitment. Consider my sister Zahra Suratwala, who is running for DuPage County Board in Illinois. Her slogan is “Leading begins with Listening.” I asked her why she prefers to run a positive campaign, like Ocasio, instead of trying to scare voters with the spectre of Trump. She responded:
The kind of campaign you run says a lot about the way you see the voters. my positive, kindness-based campaign means i think people are motivated by inspiration and positivity, that they want to be inspired and engaged.
In other words, the new wave of Democratic candidates – many of whom are women, and minority – have a fundamentally positive view of their voters, as agents of their own hope. Reoublican candidates have a fundamentally negative view of their voters, as passive and naive. Only one of these messages will bring new voters into the system – and has the potential to fundamentally reshape our politics in a purple majority.