Negative campaigning and persuasion

James writes about the inefficacy of negative campaigning in the last federal election:

But the Conservatives never seemed to crack the 33% barrier, primarily because while Canadians knew every reason why the Liberals deserved defeat, they were short on reasons why the Conservatives deserved victory… .
In my opinion, Canadians seem to tune out negative advertising saying, in effect, “Yeah, yeah, Stephen Harper is the anti-Christ, whatever! But what would you actually do for this country?”

I take a slightly different view. I’m of the opinion that negative campaigning does in fact work, but you can’t win an election on negativity alone. This was the mistake that both the Liberals and Conservatives made: they spent all their time explaining how terrible it would be to elect the other guys, without making the case for themselves. In a nutshell, they both ran terrible campaigns — the minority result is, I think, proof that neither side was persuasive on their own behalf.

Governments tend to get elected on positive messages — Chrétien in 1993 with da liddle red book, Clinton in 1992 — even if they’re combined with a strong negative message. “We can do better than that crap, and here’s how” is much better than “This is crap, and they’re all assholes” — which may well be true, but it doesn’t necessarily make the case why someone should vote for you.