The Art of the Political Attack

Dr. Louis Perron
blog post louis

One of the main failures of the Trump campaign is its inability up until this point to define Joe Biden. The main point of such a strategy is to try and change the dynamics of the race from a referendum on Trump to a binary choice between Trump and Biden. “Sleepy Joe” might have been a funny caricature for some, but Trump desperately needs to improve among senior citizens. At the moment, they are voting for Biden in margins no Democrat has reached since Al Gore in 2000. So, a 74-year-old attacking a 77-year-old for being too old to do the job is probably not going to get the job done.

At the moment, Biden’s favorability rating is 45% favorable vs. 46% unfavorable. This rating is actually rather ok in view of the fact that the Biden campaign has just started to air bio ads. It’s next to impossible for Trump to win if Biden were able to maintain these numbers. But a good attack ad campaign might tip the balance. This doesn’t mean to start shooting left and right like a machine gun attack. In fact, if you attack your opponent for too many things, the individual attack might lose credibility. In other words, there is an art of the political attack.

I have personally worked for clients who were accused of corruption, ghost employees, gambling, drinking, womanizing, being too old, being too dogmatic, not hailing from the area, drug abuse or being influenced by others. Oftentimes, attacks don’t stick because voters see it as smear campaigns. Never assume that voters are stupid. They factor in the timing of an attack. Therefore, the first thing to do is to check in focus groups if voters have actually heard an allegation. Second, we usually check if they believe the allegation – they may have heard it, but not believe it. Even if they have heard and believe an allegation, it’s not sure that it has an impact on their vote. I have even witnessed focus groups where voters made excuses for the attacked person because other information outweighed the attack. In that sense, an attack ad ideally communicates a coherent narrative, picking something up that focus groups have shown voters believe already to be true and are already bothered about. It then has to be executed in an appealing way. Too many political attack ads look and feel like, well, political attack ads.

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