Written by Christian Elmelund-Præstekær.
Negative campaigning is a great topic! At least it is one of the few research areas within political science that survives more than a two-minute pitch at family parties. The subject seems to fascinate people – for better and for worse – and my mother, my hairdresser, and my biking comrades all have an opinion about parties’ and politicians’ negative rhetoric. Nevertheless, the first systematic studies of negativity in Denmark were published only seven years ago (Elmelund-Præstekær 2008; Hansen & Pedersen 2008); and still common wisdom, sensational stories, and myths shape everyday conversations about the negative form of political campaigning.
One of the most strong-lived beliefs is that contemporary elections are more negative than historic elections. During the Danish parliamentary election campaign in June 2015, I was called by numerous journalists who wanted an expert’s explanation of the “extraordinary” negativity that was unfolding as we spoke. One of the two most salient cases of negative campaigning was launched by the then-incumbent Social Democratic Party as a direct attack on its main opponent, the chairman of the Liberal Party, Lars Løkke Rasmussen. The campaign asked “who’s gonna pay Løkke’s bills?” referring explicitly to a range of lay-offs in the welfare state, and implicitly but more importantly it referred to Løkke’s prior problems separating his private and professional expenses (see an archived version of the campaign’s web page).