Double Negative

If both sides are “evil,” then what’s a voter to do?

illustration by peter noonan

Campaign buttons as simple and as positive as “I Like Ike” are so last century. The button that sold like hot cakes at the Republican National Convention read “Hillary for Prison 2016.”

To paraphrase a last-century president: Ask not what your candidate can do for you; ask what you can do to prevent the other candidate from winning.

This election year features a deeply polarized nation with divided political parties led by two very unpopular presidential nominees. Unlike previous elections, the unifying principle of each party isn’t rooting for their candidates or shared ideals — now it’s about making sure the other person doesn’t win.

Polling indicates that the election will be decided in key states by roughly 300,000 voters who don’t like either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump and will choose between the lesser of two evils.

Campaign rhetoric this summer ratcheted up past the level of insisting that the other candidate has the wrong ideas to declaring each should be disqualified from serving at all. This could easily be the most negative election that anyone can remember. (Though it was still mild compared to the negative campaigning that existed in the 1800s.)

This tone is having an impact down the ballot in New Hampshire races. According to recent polling, both of our members of Congress are deeply disliked. Of course, it’s not just politicians calling each other names. The Union Leader went so far to call one member of Congress a “damned liar.”

The US Senate election features two candidates — Republican incumbent Kelly Ayotte and Democratic Governor Maggie Hassan — who had pretty high personal poll numbers when the campaign began only to see them drop 10 percent each by mid-summer.

And if anyone can even recall who is running for the open governor’s race, the chances are that they are as much disliked as they are liked.

The attacks in the presidential race have been personal and nonstop. Yes, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has been accused of “insulting his way to the top,” but the political environment for such negative politics long predated his entrance into the field.

Feisty and petulant talk radio gave way to snark on Twitter. Legislative and Congressional redistricting meant politicians needed to worry more about appealing to their party’s base than the political center. In addition, changes in campaign finance law have created incentives for politicians to say more radical things that will get them press attention and, eventually, donations.

This has created a political climate in which it is hard for any actual governing to happen. When each side is calling the other side names, it’s hard to build the trust required for compromise on legislation or policy. There is a mindset of a permanent campaign focused on beating the other side, not working with it.

Still, this culture of the permanent campaign has existed even when campaigns weren’t so toxic. In 2008, the presidential election featured candidates with inspiring life stories. There was negative campaigning, but polling showed voters liked their choices overall.

That voters don’t like their choices now is one reason why the candidates are giving up any pretense of staying positive. Over the decades, we’ve formed opinions of both Trump and Clinton — therefore, they likely believe that there’s little reason to think they can successfully reintroduce themselves.

During the debates this fall, maybe they should both just wear T-shirts saying, “I’m with stupid.” But, by then, we will all have gotten the message.

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